Norwegian Cruise Line Norwegian Star by DougMacP Mexico February 5, 2006
Before I booked the cruise I had concerns. Can a person who loves mid-size ships and "traditional" cruising find happiness going "freestyle" on a large ship? Am I going to miss the set dinner hours and the security of knowing with whom I'm dining each night? Will the service be impersonal and reservations impossible to come by? Will the food in the specialty restaurants be worth the extra money? If you like a review that is one paragraph long the answers are: yes, no, no and definitely yes. If you interested in more detail, read on.
I've done just under 20 cruises on the major standard, premium and several of the luxury cruise lines. On my last two cruises with Holland America and Celebrity I ended up changing tables because of (how does one say this nicely?) less than desirable tablemates. That is the risk with traditional cruising; bad assigned tablemates can make a cruise a miserable experience. While it's not the end of the world to move tables, I always felt sort of guilty about it, hiding from the people at my former table the best I could the rest of the cruise. With freestyle I theorized I could control my own destiny, and that of my friend who was a first time cruiser.
Embarkation: 40 minutes from drop off to opening the stateroom door. NCL doesn't do the complete check in at the pier. You are allowed to board by group number into the ship where your credit card information is obtained, picture taken and cruise card is given. There is a bit of a musical chairs quality to this arrangement in reverse. The quicker you get up from where you're seated when your group number is called the closer to the front of the line you'll be. Tip: If you have e-docs and didn't receive luggage tags make sure you get the luggage tags from the pier personnel curb side first thing. Have pre-printed stick-on labels with your name and address so all you have to do is write your stateroom number on the tag.
Cabin: Balcony cabin on deck 10. I enjoyed the cabin very much with a few minor issues. It was attractive, well maintained and comfortable. The beds were great and I appreciated the duvets instead of the usual top sheet and blankets. The closets however are bizarre. It is a two door arrangement that gives you a larger hanging area but to access the shelves you have to literally get down on your knees, move any hanging clothes out of the way and reach around the side. I much prefer the three door arrangement where the middle door is the location of the safe and shelves. If you don't know about the closet light (located in the back behind the closet rod) it would be an impossible arrangement, especially because there are only three other drawers in the cabin.
The cabins seem to have soundproofing issues. Perhaps it was because we were blessed with amazingly loud neighbors with children above and beside us. If you leave the balcony door open, be prepared to hear everything! Beyond that, the stateroom creaks and groans (probably from the ceiling panels) which can be quite annoying at night. Tip: Bring ear plugs.
Public Areas: The Star is a big ship, no doubt about that, a true floating resort. The lack of a unifying ship theme troubled me at first, but I soon discovered that if you aren't in a public room to your liking, just keep moving and you'll find one. There are some beautiful rooms and lounges on the ship, covering almost all design themes. The longer the cruise went on, the more I appreciated the diversity of styles. I also loved the full outside promenade on deck 7, something sadly designed out of other modern cruise ships.
What I didn't appreciate is the pool deck. The two humungous water slides absolutely dominate the area. Not only are they unattractive, but they don't work! There isn't enough water flow or steepness for anyone other than the kids to use them. Trust me, I tried. I ended up crawling down one half of the way. The visual impact and atmosphere of the pool area would be greatly enhanced if they were removed. The other gripe is lack of "prime" sun lounging areas. Part of the problem is that they use the entire main deck area by the pool for table and chairs, instead of lounges. Another problem is that many passengers (for lack of a better word) "hog" the chairs. They'll lie in the sun for an hour or two but leave the towels there all day in case they want to come back later. Many cruise lines handle this by having the deck staff promptly remove the towels unless other personal items (bags, books, etc.) are left with them. I think this would solve a lot of problems, since it's easier to train the staff then to teach the guests manners.
Entertainment: There are three types of entertainment on a ship. Production shows, headliners, and lounge acts. Having worked with a production company in Vegas in the past I learned long ago not to expect too much from the entertainment on a ship, any ship. "Entertainment" is a relative concept, if you think you'll be seeing a Vegas or Broadway quality show, a famous headliner, or you'll catch a rising star in the lounge, you'll only be disappointed. With that said, overall I was very impressed with the Star. When it comes to shipboard entertainment, NCL knows its business.
The usual cruise ship production show is heavily lip synced with choreography so amateurish it would work if the ship was in the process of capsizing. Not the case here. The first show Music of the Night, the tribute to Andrew Lloyd Weber was very entertaining, well sung and danced. The second show "It's Fame" ended up being cancelled half through both shows due to technical issues. What was presented was extremely well done. The last show Cirque Pacific was my least favorite. While I enjoyed the Chinese acrobats very much, the "flying numbers" were done a death defying 10 feet above the stage (gosh!) and the Jean Ann Ryan Company dance numbers looked something like Tai-Kwon-Do meets Jazzercise. In this case less would have been more, just focus on the acrobats. Since it was the night before the end of the cruise they also bring out the Captain and fill the stage with crew members for an inane pandering tribute to themselves about how wonderful they made your cruise experience. Obviously, I was not moved to tears.
Also in the main showroom are the obligatory comic and magician (which I missed) and for our cruise the cabaret performer was Lorna Luft, the daughter of Judy Garland, and the far less frantic and famous half sister of Liz Minnelli. She did an abbreviated version of her club act without the benefit of photo and video clips.
NCL really seems to appreciate and understand lounge acts. From the bands to piano players the quality of the performers was surprisingly good. I won't name names, just wander around and I'm sure you'll find a room and a performer you enjoy.
Dining: NCL is a standard line, with an average outside cabin costing less than $100 per day per person for this cruise. To expect anything other than mass market cruise cuisine is not realistic. In the end, you get what you pay for. But for $15 to $25 per day more you can have a completely different experience. When it came to the specialty restaurants, the Star shines brightly (pun intended). In fact, the dinners were better then on luxury cruises for which I paid more than $300 per day. Shortly after boarding I set up reservations at Le Bistro, Teppanyaki (at Ginza) Soho and Cagney's for consecutive days. We ended up repeating Ginza twice and did Le Bistro one more time. Each of these restaurants greatly exceeded my expectations for service, food and presentation in a relaxed yet elegant atmosphere. We did have one dinner in the Versailles room, where the food and service was surprising good, certainly comparable with Holland America and Celebrity.
We ate most of our breakfasts and lunches at the Market Café, which is the buffet restaurant on deck 12. The food was perfectly acceptable as far as variety, taste and freshness. The Market Café's problem is the layout. The Café runs the full length on the starboard (right) side, but only half the way on the port, therefore there really isn't enough space to accommodate the number of people who utilize the room without cramming tables everywhere. It is not a classy room by any stretch of the imagination and the tables and chairs are rather unattractive. Make sure to check out the buffets when they are set up pool side, they have great chicken and ribs.
Service: The service staff on the Star is multi-cultural, with Asians and Eastern Europeans being in the majority in the restaurants and lounges. In days gone by some cruise lines would brag that their service staff was predominately Filipino's (technically Asian in these politically correct times), who came from a "culture of service". That sort of smiling, gracious and familiar service became the expectation of cruise passengers, and appears to exist to this day. Now you add into the mix Eastern Europeans, who approach service in a less familiar and more formal way. To many they come off as unsmiling, aloof and generally stern. Even when they do their cruise line jobs well, the passengers never warm up to them. I certainly agree with a recent review I read about the Star, what passengers may think as "spotty" service, in reality may just be the cultural difference. It was certainly my experience aboard this cruise. My only minor complaint about "service" had to do with the lounges. Be prepared to say "no thank you" a lot if you don't want a drink. Since the servers roam the various lounges instead of having a set service area you are constantly being asked if you want a beverage, even if you just ordered one from another server. It really bugged me at first, but after awhile I got used to just saying no.Ports: We booked after Acapulco was dropped from the itinerary and were actually grateful about that. With all the recent news reports about gang wars, drive by shootings and general deterioration of the city many passengers felt the same way, besides I've been to Acapulco a number of times both by land and sea. NCL offered what I thought were some good and reasonable priced excursions in all the ports, although generally you can always do better at the pier or in town price wise, with the possible exception Manzanillo which does not have organized tourist facilities like the other ports. Personally, I always do my own research before I leave. If you haven't checked it out www.portreview.com do so, it's a wonderful site
Manzanillo: At first glance the downtown looks tiny, but like the tip of an iceberg most of it is hidden from view. I really enjoyed walking into town and exploring the back streets and shops. Manzanillo is a working port town and has one of the highest standards of living and lowest crime rates in Mexico. You are not assaulted by vendors, or children trying to sell "Chiclets". Speaking a few words of Spanish really helps here, as the town has not gone gaga for tourists (yet). Don't get me wrong, the people are friendly, it's just your not the center of their universe. Since NCL does not have recommended vendors here (meaning merchants who pay kickbacks) the Port Guide they provide is completely lacking.
Puerto Vallarta: I've been to PV more than 10 times, including an extended land based vacation last year. For "beach time" skip the large chain hotels, and head to Playa Los Muertos (beach) in the old section of town also know as the Romance Zone. If you tell the taxi driver to drop you off at the El Dorado Restaurant you'll be in the heart of things. Just walk up the beach until you find a spot you like, and then let the café personnel know you want to chair. For the cost of some drinks or food you can have a beach chair under a palapa (umbrella) and the best people watching in PV.
Mazatlan: On my perpetual least favorite Mexican resort town list. It doesn't have the sophistication, visual impact and beach environment PV has, or the shopping and glitzy newness of Cabo. Unless you're looking for diamonds or gemstones skip the tiny over-hyped "Golden Zone". Tour old town in one of the cute open air taxi's and save your shopping for the facility right next to the pier. You can get everything there that you could get in town, and actually at better prices.
Cabo: The only trouble with Cabo is time, or lack thereof. On almost every cruise I've been on the ship has to leave by 2pm to get back to the States. Therefore, Cabo is always a bit of a "rush." The most Americanized of the Ports, in the Marina area you'll swear you're in Southern California (is that a good thing?), complete with a Mall.
Cruise Staff and Activities: The Star offers the usually barrage of shipboard activities from Bingo to Trivia hosted by a very competent and charming cruise staff. If you were bored on this cruise you were: (1) anti social, (2) traveling with the wrong person(s), or (3) in need of anti-depressant medication. Make sure to check out the interactive Live at Five call-in show with the Cruise Director, it's a hoot.
Fellow Passengers: The whole gambit, from new born babies to the so to be departed, sophisticated travelers to drunken louts, chiseled fitness enthusiasts to enormous buffet junkies. Truly a bit of everything and everyone.
Disembarkation: No need to be out of your cabin at 8:00am like the old days, NCL continues to have a very urbane process for re-entering the world. You can stay in your cabin until your luggage tag color is called then you proceed to the designated lounge where you "clear" customs on the ship, instead of at the Pier. This eliminates the risk of being late off the ship because a person not of US citizenship doesn't understand announcements and cannot be located, because under the "Pier" system all non US residents were required to clear customs before any US citizens could disembark. While the itinerary said we wouldn't arrive in Long Beach until 9:00am, we actually were off the ship by then in plenty of time for our flight at 11:20am.
In the end: Every time I fill out the little survey cards you get the day before the end of the cruise I always come to the same conclusion; the complete experience is more than the sum of it's parts. Things can be less than perfect yet I still thoroughly enjoy myself. In the end it won't matter that a port got changed, or the waitperson trying to anticipate my every need didn't look completely thrilled while doing it. That's all small stuff. The big stuff is about completely relaxing and savoring the moment. The freedom of Freestyle dinning, and the quality of the specialty restaurants was the highlight of the cruise for me. This "traditional" mid-size ship lover couldn't help but appreciate the product the Star offered, and I'm certainly not complaining about the price.DougMacP@aol.com