My husband and I, both age 31, just returned from the March 5, 2005 sailing of the eight-night Mexican Riviera cruise on the Norwegian Star. My husband is an Account Executive for an HVAC wholesaler, and I am a Credit Analyst for a commercial bank. We left our two kids at home for this trip.
We had a very good time on our cruise, but we have mixed feelings about the whole freestyle approach. We like the flexibility of dining whenever we want, but miss the formality of dressing for dinner. The service on the Star was not as good as we have seen on our other cruises aboard Carnival and Princess, but it was adequate. The food was not as good as we had on Princess, but it was adequate. The facilities were not as nice as we had on Princess, but they were adequate. As you can see, there is a trend here: adequacy. Nothing on this trip really "knocked my socks off" but we definitely had a good time.
That said, here is my (lengthy) review of our experience aboard the Star.
Flight to Los Angeles: We had a very early morning, uneventful flight to LA from Eugene, Oregon. The stewardesses gave us a bottle of wine when they learned it was our anniversary. I had done some research into ground transportation options, and we didn't want to wait for the NCL shuttle, since we were arriving at the airport at 9 am. We booked online with Prime Time Shuttle service, and received transportation to the port for only $15 each. Since we booked online, we received excellent instructions via email on how to find the van, etc. I would highly recommend this service for both value and service. Embarkation: Embarkation was disorganized and not "user friendly". We arrived at the cruise port at about 10:30ish and no one from NCL was there to tell us where to wait. My husband asked twice, but got different answers each time, both incorrect. There were no porters available to take our luggage from us, so we were stuck waiting with our six bags. Finally a curt, loud woman named Gail told us to trek halfway across the parking lot to leave our luggage with a porter, and wait in a nearby tent. After about 45 minutes of waiting, we realized that a line to embark the ship had formed across the parking lot. No announcement had been made to those of us waiting where Gail had instructed. As a result, we waited in a very long, very slow line for our turn to clear security. As we waited, we watched as security "screened" baggage. No one was watching the X-ray machine as bags ran through; the operator was turned completely in his seat as the bags ran by. And worse yet, after the bags reached the end of the conveyor belt, they simply fell off the end and on top of each other before anyone moved them. No wonder everything gets broken in luggage!! After we finally made it in the building we were able to pass through security relatively quickly and then on to the ship to wait to check in. None of this was a very efficient process, if you ask me. Cabin: After check in we made it to our cabin, with little help from the NCL staff, as they were nowhere to be seen. We had an ocean view cabin on Deck 5, number 5092. The cabin was adequate, not much storage space, but still we managed to store all of our belongings. It was adequately decorated, not luxurious, but we weren't expecting luxury in this cabin category. The bathroom was much better than I expected, with a shower big enough to turn around in. I should emphasize that the cabin was adequate for two, possibly three. Anyone booking four people to this cabin should either be fairly small in stature or ready to get REALLY cozy. There was one fold-down bed, two twin beds, and a trundle bed. Once the beds are all erected I doubt that there is any floor space to speak of. But, as I said, this was a good cabin for two people. Public Areas: The public areas on this ship are nice, not particularly sophisticated, but more of a "fun" atmosphere. There were a lot of very bright colors, with somewhat modern décor in most areas. The swimming pool was pretty, although small and little used. The hot tubs were not always very hot, but there was always room in one of them. We never did get any bar service in the hot tubs, I don't know if this was intentional on their part or not. We were always able to find a lounger, although it seemed that a lot of people were reserving them for hours on end without ever showing up. I find this rude, but what can you do? The spa was beautiful, at the back of the ship with a wonderful view through floor-to-ceiling angled windows. There was no charge to use the co-ed lounge, swimming pool or indoor hot tubs, and no kids were allowed in this area. It was very peaceful and perfect for the first and last at sea days, when the weather outside was not very warm. I had a massage and a facial for $79 (plus gratuity) on the last night, both of which were very nice. The massage therapist did try to sell me products, but I expected this and declined. She was not pushy at all, and in fact didn't try to sell any of the facial products, since I told her that I already had a routine, which she felt was working well. We waited until the last night of the cruise to visit the spa area, though, and wished we had spent more time in there earlier in the week.
The casino was large enough, with no wait for either table games or slot machines. Bar service was efficient and friendly. Ventilation was adequate to remove excess cigarette smoke.
The Stardust Theater was a nice facility, but had some limited sightlines from the balcony area. We saw two shows there - a magician and an Andrew Lloyd Weber review. Both were good. Dining: We avoided the buffet completely. We walked through it occasionally to peruse the selection, but never saw anything appealing. We went there one night in hopes of finding dessert only to be disappointed by the selection. Oh well, my figure didn't really need another piece of cheesecake anyway. Six out of eight nights we ate in Versailles, as we liked the atmosphere and decoration better than Aqua. The other two nights we ate at Cagney's and at Le Bistro. We found the service in Versailles to be very slow. While we never had to wait to get a table, we often had long waits for our food and drink. Our water glasses often ran dry and at some meals we never got a second cup of coffee. But with a little patience we still enjoyed our meal. The food in Versailles was not bad, but it wasn't great. Most meals were good enough to merit cleaning my plate. The breakfast menu changed daily, but they only a few menus with little selection, so by the end of the week we were bored. We found that anything with red meat was usually pretty good: Prime rib, Beef Wellington, Veal, etc. The crème brûlée on the first night was good, but small. Our waiter spotted me trying to get every last bit out of the dish and brought me another one. God bless him. The only bad meal was the chicken parmesan. All of the soufflés were delightful, the Crepes Suzette was wonderful, and some nights I ordered multiple desserts. Portions seemed to run small to ridiculously small. One appetizer was only four fried mushrooms!
Night two we ate at Le Bistro - an experience I would recommend to everyone who boards this ship. We had the best meal of the week there, and certainly the best wait staff. We had escargot that melted in our mouths, filet mignon cooked to perfection and so tender that you could cut it with a fork, lobster, and a decadent chocolate fondue. Our Cagney's steakhouse meal was good, better than the main dining room and with better service. Again we had filet mignon and lobster, but the lobster was in the shell so we really had to work to get it. Le Bistro was better. We frequented several of the bars and received good service. The drinks were mostly good and I didn't feel that they were weak, as other reviewers have suggested about this cruise line. The cosmopolitans, in fact, were a little strong for my taste. But after two of them I didn't notice anymore! I do wish, however, that they had larger glasses for soda, since they will only give you one glass at a time. The bartender in the casino was very good. Acapulco: We didn't care much for Acapulco, nor did anyone else that we spoke with. It was not a very well-kept city, rundown and unclean. Prostitution was obvious, and there were shady characters lurking about. There were dogs running around, eating the garbage from bags left in plain sight in the Zocalo.
We did the "Isla La Roqueta Beach Break" organized shore excursion. For only $35 each it was a decent value: An afternoon spent lounging on a public beach and an open bar. The tour guide was very friendly, accommodating, and eager to please. Those in our group were the only Americans in sight, and my blonde hair drew quite a few stares. I think that I scared a few small children. On the way back to the mainland, our guide's employee, Julio, dove off an impossibly high cliff for our entertainment. He received many cheers and a good haul in tips.
The taxi driver that we hired at the port was insistent that we shop at the flea market, and then he followed us from stall to stall trying to lure us to certain vendors - no doubt in exchange for financial compensation. But then I've learned never to trust a Mexican cabbie, so we shopped where we pleased and ignored him. But when we were done shopping he did take us to a good restaurant near the port, as requested. From there we hired a non-English speaking VW taxi driver, who took us to the cliff divers for only $3. All it took was a little sign language and he knew where to take us. We didn't go to any of the famous bars or nightspots, as that isn't really our thing.
Zihuatenejo: Zihua was a beautiful, quaint little port with a nice beach and friendly locals. Unfortunately we were only in this port for a short time; I could have stayed much longer. There was plenty of good shopping within easy walking distance from the docks and several good beach-side eateries. The local entertainment was great - a pre-teen boy who could play the guitar better than I've seen in a long while!
Puerto Vallarta: Puerto Vallarta was nice, much cleaner than Acapulco. We spent half of our day on the beach at the NH Krystal Vallarta, which had a well-maintained beach area, very pretty pools, and clean bathrooms. The resort was within easy walking distance from the port. We asked at the front desk to use their facilities; for $15 each we got a day pass to the grounds. The money was then refunded through bar service - four pina colladas and some appetizers later we had gotten our money back, used their facilities, and everyone came out a winner. We hired a taxi from the hotel and spent the remainder of the day wandering along the Malecón, shopping to our heart's content.
Cabo San Lucas: Cabo was a very pretty port, perhaps my favorite of the four, although Zihuatenejo was a very close second. We spent most of the day wandering the town, shopping. For $20 we hired a water taxi to take us on a tour around Land's End. He spoke good English and was very knowledgeable about the area. He stopped at each point of interest to allow us a lot of time for pictures. He had plenty of tortillas on hand to feed the tropical fish, which were plentiful. We found Nemo! We were on the water for about 45 minutes, just the two of us and our two water taxi drivers. I wish that we had taken the time to go snorkeling there, but we had some urgent shopping to finish .
Disembarkation: I have read several reviews that people have written about this process on NCL. The concept of freestyle disembarkation is a good one - but it seemed disorganized to us. We had organized a tour of LA, and were in the second group to disembark. We liked being able to wait in our stateroom and have continental room service for breakfast. When our group was called, there seemed to be a shortage of people on hand to tell us where we needed to go and what we needed to do. There were a lot of confused passengers. We cleared customs on the boat - which was a very relaxed process and not nearly as intimidating as other customs experiences we have had. Our customs agent was actually smiling and having a good time! When got off of the boat and found our luggage there was mass confusion and nowhere to put our luggage. Luckily our porter was very kind and stayed with us so we didn't have to lug our stuff around - we tipped him very well. After an eternity of waiting we finally were assigned to one of the busses parked right in front of us. I never did understand what all of the confusion was about, but it could have been that there just wasn't anyone in charge of the situation. Our tour of LA was good but not exciting, it was only $45 a piece and ended at the airport so it was a great way to kill some time before our flight.
In Conclusion: We had a very good time on this cruise and certainly have no regrets about having chosen this cruise line over others. Had we never sailed on a Princess cruise, we would probably think that the Star was the crème de la crème. But, alas, we've been spoiled by the class, sophistication, and superb service of the Princess lines. We liked the flexibility of Freestyle cruising, but a similar program is available on Princess too. There was more of a party atmosphere on board the Norwegian Star than we prefer - but some people chose this line for exactly that reason.
In the future we will probably stick with Princess Cruises for their better food, accommodations, service, and overall class. Norwegian just didn't compete in our opinions.