This was our 45th cruise, but only our second NCL cruise (the first was the Norway in 1984). Having cruised most frequently with Princess, we thought we would give NCL a try with this cruise on the Norwegian Star.
Overall impression and recommendation: We are not easily impressed. We would definitely sail on this ship again in a heartbeat. The ship and all of its themed public rooms are gorgeous, with a friendly and efficient crew. The food is excellent (other than the buffet on Deck 12), as is the freestyle dining option.
Your fellow cruisers: This is a much younger crowd than Princess. Especially at holiday, it's more boisterous, with lots of first-time cruisers. Many families with young children. There is a much more casual feel, but not as casual as Carnival. It was actually quite comfortable and fun.
Ship's Stabilizers / Captain's Ability: Norwegian Star's stabilizers are first-rate. After dozens of cruises in similar waters with much more movement, we hardly felt movement at all. Remember to avoid the front of the ship in case you are prone to sea sickness. Captain Sovdsnes was great. He always backed the ship in when docking in each port, so that when we left, we just sailed straight out. No endless turning around in the bay before we could sail away. TIP: I include this category because not every captain will be a good captain. Be aware when you cruise and the captain is too hesitant or unpracticed because he might skip ports that other ships will visit. Jot down the captain's name so that when you book your next cruise, you won't get stuck with him again and get burned twice. (We have). Embarkation: We were set for express embarkation, having sent in our documents well in advance. Be aware that every three months aboard the Norwegian Star, it has to conduct a full crew immigration as well as passengers embarking and disembarking the ship, all in the same day. Unfortunately for us, December 23 was that day. We sailed through the past passenger Latitudes line only to wait for two hours to embark the ship. A major hassle, but completely unavoidable.
Restaurants/ Freestyle Cruising Dining: There is no Afternoon Tea service. We did not visit any cover charge restaurants (Ginza is $12.50 pp, So Ho Room and Le Bistro are $15.00, Cagney's is $20.00, and Sushi and Teppanyaki are a la carte pricing). Versailles, Aqua, Endless Summer, La Trattoria, Red Lion Pub for fish and chips and shepherd's pie are all free). Portions were somewhat smaller (oddly, even the tables are smaller than on Princess), but we found the food to be excellent everywhere we ate, especially Versailles and Aqua.
Endless Summer: (no cover charge, make reservations 1 day earlier) Don't expect this to be your local Mexican restaurant. That would be unfair. They're not tossing tortillas fresh out of a nearby oven or mixing tableside guacamole. You're in the middle of the ocean with an international crew. Still, we enjoyed this venue, and followed the recommendations of others who had dined here before. We loved the jumbo shrimp fajitas. We liked the guacamole/sour cream/salsa placed on each table. If you need your Mexican food fix onboard, this is it.
Blue Lagoon: (no cover charge) This is casual and small, and good for those off hours when you are feeling a bit peckish. Their oriental noodle soup is good, and the shepherd's pie is worth the wait. I wouldn't recommend the potato skins. They're fine, but they're not prepared as you are probably accustomed.
Market Cafe: We renamed this the Chaos Cafe. The buffet is fine, just not noteworthy. TIP: If you do eat at Market Cafe, there's another dining area toward the aft stairway on the starboard side which is much quieter with far less people and more open tables.
Tender tickets: For two of the ports, you'll be anchoring in the bay and tendering ashore (about a ten minute ride). The day before, numbered tender tickets are available in the ship's Library. Check the Freestyle Daily for times. Only one person from each family needs to pick up these tickets. The most efficient thing is to line up at the library's check-out desk so that when the ship's agent arrives with the tickets, you simply take your number (if there are 17 in your party, you'll need 17 tickets) and leave. The first day it was an absolute free-for-all as passengers who had just walked in the room pushed ahead of people who had been waiting up to half an hour. So the next time we all agreed to form a line and it was much faster and easier. There's plenty of time in these ports. Often the shops aren't open at 8 am when the ship arrives anyway.
Latitudes Program: If you have ever sailed any Norwegian ship, fax proof to the cruise line beforehand and get your Latitudes membership going. The check-in line at embarkation is much shorter, there is a special cocktail party onboard, a 10% discount on everything in the gift shops, a discount in the Internet cafe, and 20% off drinks in the Spinnaker lounge (at certain times on certain drinks). It seemed like over half the ship had cruised before, and that there were no special perks for more frequent cruisers.
Taxis in all ports: TIP: Never step into a taxi until you agree on the price. Find out beforehand what it should cost before you even get near that taxi. Ask Fiona onboard, ask the local tourist board, ask in a shop, or research it online. If it's only 10 minutes away, you should only be paying a few dollars. From every port to nearby hotels, no taxi cost more than $8.00, usually under $5.00. Drivers speak enough English to get you where you want; just be specific. It helps to quote the driver in pesos because they will almost always quote their price in pesos (50 pesos is under 5 dollars). You will not need pesos. Every place you go will take dollars. To convert you can just move the decimal one place to the left and adjust down a bit to figure out how many dollars.
We had zero bad experiences with the taxi drivers. They were all extremely nice and courteous. We usually tipped them so they almost made the amount they originally quoted, and they were very happy. Even if you end up paying more than the going rate, it's easy to be gracious. Think about how fortunate you are to be on a luxurious cruise ship, rather than spending your life driving a taxi in extremely hot weather on crowded streets. There but for the grace of God...
The Ports: This is Mexico. Don't drink the water, and remember that ice is water. Ask for cold drinks in a can or bottle. More and more places it is safe to get drinks with ice but we still don't do it.
Acapulco: Pretty faded from its glory of the 70s and 80s. The ship will try to steer you towards the few expensive stores where they have preestablished arrangements made. They directed us to Fine Bonita Jewelry, saying it was in the 'heart of Acapulco.' That's not true. This district was to the left when you get off the ship, and in old town. The area was awful, and totally run down, other than this one store. The store is overwhelming in its selection of expensive jewelry, but not what we wanted. The heart of Acapulco is actually in the opposite direction after you get off the ship (to the right), toward the high rise resort hotels leading up to that beautiful cross on the hill. There are many boutiques and small shopping malls in that direction. First-timers to Acapulco especially love the cliff diving at the beautiful Las Brisas hotel, and I believe they still have night-time shows as well (the ship stays until about 1 am).
Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa: Zihuatanejo is a charming fishing village, but Ixtapa is where the resorts are. The drive is about 50-60 pesos to the Ixtapa Hotel Zone. For quiet elegance, the most impressive hotel is Las Brisas, on your left as you sail into the harbor. Very distinctive, you can't miss it. The grounds are huge, almost like a rainforest, and steep, windy stairs lead down to the sandy beach below, where there's a casual restaurant called La Brisa, right on the sand. To find the private beach, walk in the lobby to the right, pass the reception desk on your left, go left around the corner, and take an elevator near the guest rooms. Then you take a second elevator with its own distinctive elevator bank, down to the beach level. Very interesting exploring here. For exercise, you can walk up a separate path, up steep stairs to the impressive pool area and up windy tree-blanketed paths to the lobby. This hotel is quiet, serene, and breathtakingly beautiful. If you want a beautiful, quiet place to sip a drink and write your postcards, this is the place. But if you're looking for excitement, this is not it.
The most boisterous, lively hotel (especially their crowded pool area) was Hotel Dorado Pacifico, also in the Hotel Zone. If you want to play a.m. tennis, their courts are an excellent choice. They are actually shaded by the hotel itself in the morning. Walk across the street to the shopping district. (All the hotels are walking distance from each other except for Las Brisas which is set apart and has its own private beach). The shopping area has many boutiques and restaurants. It's really quite pretty, and a new restaurant called 'El Infierno Y La Gloria' looked fantastic! We did not have time to eat, but it was pleasantly crowded and looked great.
Puerto Vallarta: The taxis are vans that pile you in at $3.00 per person and drop you off at, you guessed it, their pre-arranged expensive jewelry store downtown. That's fine. Pile in with your fellow cruisers and when you get downtown, just walk away to do your own shopping. Check out the old church (Iglesia de la Virgen de Guadalupe; they ask that you please don't wander around inside wearing shorts unless you stay near the door, this is a holy place). The main plaza is here, and worth taking some gorgeous pictures of the unique sculptures along the waterfront with the ocean in the background. If you are looking for a nice gift of jewelry for someone special back home, check out one of Sergio Bustamante's three galleries in town. He's surprisingly affordable for the quality of his work which he signs on the back. The biggest store is on the third street up perpendicular to the water, to the east of the main plaza. His jewelry is quite distinctive, and when you see it, you'll see why so many other artists appear to be 'copying' his work, having come from the same school of art. It's great fun, even if you don't buy a thing.
We grabbed a taxi (always take the Nissan taxis with the yellow doors) to the Marina Zone where the fancy hotels are. This cost about 40 pesos. The Westin is beautiful. They serve food poolside and have a very trendy beach restaurant/bar called Nikki Beach, with white-clad servers, next to these large, round beach lounges that have puffy pillows piled up in the middle, fanning out in the shape of a star for sunbathers. Reminded us of the trendy Sand Bar atop W Hotels.
Cabo San Lucas: This port town has grown. There is now a new shopping mall right on the Marina. It's a gorgeous new mall called Puerto Paraiso. When you get off the ship, keep walking right around the marina to the right. After about a ten minute walk you see the really huge building just after Plaza Bonita which is also good for shopping. Puerto Paraiso is brand new and it's first class. The second and third floors are still filling up, but already there's a full first floor including a large Sergio Bustamante gallery in case you missed him in P.V. It even has a Ruth's Chris Steak House and Johnny Rockets.
And finally, Disembarkation: The Norwegian Star is unique. They let you stay in your cabin until you're ready to disembark the ship. No endless waiting in a crowded, noisy public room tripping over other people's luggage. Just wait in your cabin enjoying your satellite CNN TV with room service and wait for your colored luggage tag to be called, then head to the gangway.
Last Impression / Comparison with Princess: Okay, so there's no afternoon tea like Princess Cruises. And the Norwegian Star's buffet was pretty plain, unlike the Horizon Court buffets on Princess ships which are phenomenal and spectacular. The past passenger benefits are definitely greater with Princess than Norwegian, and the Princess crowd is older and more traveled. Still, this was great Fun! Looking over our shoulder when we disembarked this beautiful ship, we agreed that we are definitely booking another cruise on the Star. Happy Cruising!