Norwegian Cruise Line Norwegian Star by Louisa Mexico November 23, 2008
BACKGROUND INFORMATION I am a 35 year old who has taken 11 cruises in my life, but this was my very first cruise on NCL. I traveled with my husband on this cruise and this was our third cruise to the Mexican Riviera. The purpose of this vacation was to sleep, eat and totally relax! I am happy to report that we got exactly what we were searching for!
EMBARKATION Getting on the ship was fairly easy, but disorganized (as most cruise lines are). There were plenty of check-in agents and the process was quick. All passengers are required to fill our a short health questionnaire, asking if you have had any gastrointenstinal illnesses in the last week or so. NCL seems really serious about confining the norovirus and keeping their passengers safe and healthy. They even squirt down your hands with sanitizer before you get onboard (and there are stations throughout the ship with hand sanitizer -- we always used them as did most other passengers). One note of advice -- do NOT try to "sneak" on any liquor in your carry on bags! The security stations were serious about enforcing this and I saw them take away many bottles of wine, beer, etc. They were scrutinizing anything that looked like any sort of liquor. We had a 6 pack of Coke Zero soda in our carryon and we had to have all of our bags searched after going through the x-ray scanner to make sure it wasn't alcohol! I would not try to bring anything onboard, and I felt lucky that we were able to carry on our sodas! We did have a bottle of wine in our regular checked suitcase and it made it to the cabin just fine. At the gangway, crew members greeted everyone with a complimentary glass of champagne or a mimosa. There was no assistance in finding your cabin, however. Our cabins were ready about an hour and a half after boarding, so we used the extra time to explore the ship. The Market Cafe was set up with a huge spread of food but the area was a madhouse as you can imagine. While exploring, we saw that the Versailles dining room was open with just a few diners, so we opted to eat lunch there instead. It was lovely, quiet, and a much better choice than the jam packed buffet! This is a really good secret tip for future cruisers -- once you are onboard, head to Versailles to eat your first lunch onboard!
CABIN We had a balcony cabin, room 9100. It was a standard cruise line cabin, but it felt a little on the small side and never felt very clean. It was more cramped than other ships I've sailed on. The bathroom was especially tight. The shower is set up like a standard walk-in shower and was roomy, but the toilet has its own little separate area with a sliding door. This doorway makes access very, very tight. In fact, if you are a large person, I would recommend booking a handicapped accessible room because if you were too plump or tall, there is no way you could fit through that door to get to the toilet. I'm not the skinniest person in the world, but I'm not the largest either, and I have bruises on my shoulders, arms and legs from hitting that door that closed off the toilet. You could only walk through the door sideways because the sliding door isn't wide enough to accommodate standard shoulders. I am not joking! The room had a bright and fun nautical inspired theme with anchor prints and carpet. The shower had a squirt pump attached to the wall with Elemis spa shampoo and body wash (no conditioner or bar soap, bring your own). There was only ONE electrical outlet in the cabin, so bring extra outlet plugs! Also note that smoking is allowed in any stateroom and on the private balconies, so you may get a really stinky room. If you are a nonsmoker, be aware of this! We don't smoke but we did smell cigarettes from our neighbor's balcony from time to time during the cruise.
SHIP This ship is very large and is still very nice; it is showing its age, but it doesn't look that old. The grand atrium isn't that grand -- it is pretty bland. The ship doesn't have the "wow" factor of other "sparkly" and "flashy" cruise ships I've been on, but there is so much to do onboard that it doesn't really matter. Activities were never lacking and there was always something fun going on. We spent a lot of our mornings marking up the Freestyle Daily with all the activities we were going to attend, and then promptly napped through them! Aaaah, vacation life! The Carousel Lounge was the rockin' place for late night karaoke and the Havana Club cigar room was an intimate place to smoke. The wine cellar is really just part of Le Bistro and not a separate area. I was the most disappointed in the onboard shops -- there are only two! One perfume store and one large supermarket type store with everything all in one place. I enjoy strolling different shops while on board, and having everything from sundries, clothes, jewelry, liquor, etc. stuffed into one big room bothered me. It's a minor complaint, but I do wish the stores were separated out. One section of the store had the classic Bijoux Terner boutique where everything is $10. During the week, there is a special $6 for $36 sale -- so hang on to save some money!
The main showroom is large but is very poorly laid out! There is movie theater style stadium seating -- so if you sit for a show, you are trapped and can't leave without disturbing everyone in your row. The seating on the sides is limited, and the upper seating on the side of the theater has weird glass partitions so you have to crane your neck and lean forward to see the performers on the stage -- unless you want to look through glass! It is a horrible design! The entrance hallway is stunning, like a French showroom. The showroom also has bathrooms inside, so you don't have to leave the theater to use the restroom.
The internet cafe and the library are well equipped and spacious, and there is a standard card room, movie theater (just a pull down screen with theater seating that shows the same films that are playing on the in-room t.v.) and a small chapel. The fitness center was really nice and very well equipped. They even had a juice bar inside. The arcade was open 24 hours and had a good selection of video games too. The layout is a bit confusing, as you'd be walking along and all of a sudden, the ship would dead-end. This happened a lot, so be sure to carry your ship map with you!
FREESTYLE We love freestyle cruising! It is made for people like us! We heard many on board complaining about it, but we LOVED it. Not having a set dinner time was the best, because we could enjoy our day and eat in the evening at our leisure. We never had to rush, and you don't have to sit with strangers for a painfully slow 2 hour plus meal. It made for a lovely, relaxing vacation. I did notice that most passengers would start lining up to eat at 5:00. If you are willing to eat a bit later, you'll fare better with the crowds. In the two main free dining rooms, Versailles and Aqua, we never had a wait -- we would go eat around 8:30 to 9:30 and often we were only one of a few tables in the restaurants. The specialty restaurants are the same too -- we usually ate after 8:00 and never had a problem getting a reservation. The later, the better. Good food is a major part of any vacation for us, and we enjoyed the food onboard the Star.
FOOD I did not go hungry on this cruise! I am a *very* tough customer when it comes to cruise line food, and I can honestly say that the food on the Star was some of the best I've ever had on any major cruise line. Everything from the buffet to the steakhouse served really good food! We had the opportunity to dine in all of the specialty restaurants (except the Italian restaurant) during our trip. I think the best specialty restaurant on board is the French restaurant, Le Bistro. If you have a balcony cabin or suite, you can make reservations 2 days in advance. This was nice, as we never had a problem getting a reservation at any of the specialty restaurants. Another great tip is that if you are willing to eat late, after 7:30 pm, you should be able to get your desired reservation. The cover charge is charged directly to your onboard account. At the end of the meal, you are given a check to sign with a line for adding an additional tip for your server if you wish, just like at a real restaurant. We found that the servers were happy to let us order multiple appetizers, desserts, sides, entrees, etc. if we asked -- with no additional fee. Even if the portions were on the small side, they would gladly bring as much as you wanted 'til you were stuffed.
Le Bistro: The atmosphere is great -- like a small bistro that reminded me of many of the restaurants in the Napa Valley wine country. French art prints adorn the walls and the lighting is dim. The $15 per person surcharge is fair and the food/service was excellent. The restaurant has a very well stocked wine cellar with great choices (think Caymus, Joseph Phelps, Far Niente and other big California and international reds). The service here was the best we had anywhere on the entire ship. The escargot appetizer here was fantastic (and way better than the one served in the main "free" dining room), as was the fresh salmon and scallops. Don't miss the chocolate fondue dessert. It is served in a half hollowed-out pineapple with huge chunks of pineapple, bananas, strawberries and small profiteroles for dipping. Crepes can also be made to order tableside. This was by far the best dining venue on the entire ship and it was great!
Endless Summer:'s. For the $10 per person cover charge, you do get one complimentary margarita, so that takes the "sting" out of how bad the food is. The quesadilla was okay but the chicken used was of a very poor quality. I could have made it at home much better. The nachos are a JOKE. Disgusting nacho chips with a squirt of day-glo cheese glop with a scoop of Costco-esque canned shredded barbecue beef on top that looked even more unappetizing than Taco Bell. The fajitas were just standard fare. I would not recommend wasting a meal at this restaurant and I was really upset that we paid $20 for such awful food and sloppy service. The free buffet would have been a much better option.
Cagney's: Had a great atmosphere, but the food was just so/so. I wasn't impressed. The service was good, but the pacing of the nearly 3 hour meal was much too slow. We had our appetizers and salads, and our steaks didn't show up until 45 minutes later! The food wasn't bad, it just wasn't memorable. We ordered a standard shrimp cocktail that had only 4 shrimp, a crab stuffed mushroom and a small crab cake that was filled with chopped red and green peppers. The salads are not very good -- the Cagney's salad has a strange flavor and the wedge salad has a too tart vinagrette dressing. The sides were very unmemorable too -- the creamed spinach was the exact same stuff as the spinach dip that is served in the Blue Lagoon snack bar! The steaks were cooked correctly, but tasted like what you'd expect at any major US chain restaurant. I did enjoy the freshly baked rolls and the molten chocolate cake for dessert -- it was fantastic and the best dessert I had during the entire cruise. The cover charge of $20 per person is too expensive for what you get. Again, I live in a city that has some of the best restaurants in the world, and I frequently dine at the top steakhouses here, so my standards are probably a little high. But Cagney's is just not worth it -- don't waste your money! And be warned: the floor is very slippery in Cagney's, so be careful! I slipped and fell on my way out and got a big goose egg on my knee.
Ginza: My second favorite specialty restaurant on the ship! If you like sushi, you'd be in heaven here! I don't care for sushi, but there is a large sushi bar with all you can eat for $15. The main Asian fusion portion of the restaurant was very good. The steamed potstickers were very good, as was my shrimp salad. It had three huge shrimp wrapped in wonton wrappers and served on a small bed of Asian slaw with a ginger dressing. It was fantastic! I had the lemon pepper shrimp for dinner and I enjoyed it; the sauce was tart, spicy and full of flavor. The noodle and rice dishes weren't the best, but the main entrees were all tasty. Note that most of the food here is deep fried but it is very good. The desserts are not the shining star here; I'd recommend skipping them. We had no problem getting a Thanksgiving night reservation here for a 7:00 pm seating. Our "turkey day" was celebrated with delicious Asian food!
SoHo Room: We ate here for the special jazz brunch. Sign up early during your cruise because it will fill up! The cover charge was $15 per person and the food was excellent. There was a small buffet set up with lots of gourmet cheeses, quiche lorraine, roast beef asparagus wraps, smoked salmon, pancakes, a small salad bar, hot apple crumb and a great selection of breads and pastries (the chocolate filled croissants were to die for)! There was also a made to order caesar salad station with huge slices of chicken breast or shrimp! There was also a menu where you could order all sorts of breakfast foods (omelettes, waffles with strawberries and whipped cream, grilled salmon, steak tenderloin with shrimp, etc.). The food was fantastic and it was a great value, the mood was hip and cool as the onboard jazz quartet played smooth jazz.
Versailles/Aqua Dining Rooms: These are the two main free dining rooms on board and they both served the same dinner menu so you could choose either venue. Versailles was the designated "dress up" restaurant, so jeans and shorts were not allowed. Aqua was casual with an "anything goes" vibe. We found the service in Aqua to be a bit better and faster than that in Versailles. At Aqua, we were able to eat in an hour or less every time; fabulous if you were trying to catch a show or other activity. Both dining rooms have a fun atmosphere -- Versailles has more of a formal French chateau look while Aqua has a sleek, modern art feel, complete with a lighted ceiling of stars that "twinkle" during your meal. The food was always very good in both dining rooms, but the broiled fresh salmon and the cheese tortellini (available every night) were real standouts. I ordered the tortellini as an appetizer at every meal we had here. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the food because I usually never like cruise ship cuisine. I'm not a food snob, but I am a foodie and I love to eat and try different things. The Star did not disappoint! I was also pleased with the larger portion sizes. The food not only had a pretty presentation, but there was actually enough to fill you up!
Market Cafe Buffet: I never like cruise ship buffets, but this one was different. First off, it is absolutely huge with an endless variety of choices. The dessert portion of the buffet is its own separate buffet bar/section! I liked the food that I ate here, but my husband hated it. He is a real meat and potatoes guy, and I love fresh vegetables, fish, and ethnic foods. I think the foods I liked to eat on the buffet were just better prepared that the things he eats. Every day for lunch they had my favorites -- roasted chicken, green beans, cabbage, fresh cut pineapple and broccoli with cheese sauce. All of these were very good! There was also a made to order pasta station, made to order caesar salad station, roast beef, pizza, cold cuts for sandwiches, hand dipped ice cream, and many ethnic choices (Indian, Mexican, etc.). There were plenty of vegetarian choices (fresh fruits, pastries and breads, tons of vegetables, potatoes, pastas), and a special miniature kid's buffet. There was also a large selection of breads and rolls. The breads and pastries on board were FANTASTIC. It had some of the best breads I've ever eaten anywhere! The buffet was not so good at breakfast -- the food just wasn't well prepared and I'd dare call it "disgusting." But at lunch and dinner, it was great! The eating area is set up with long rows of tables so you have to pack in with other people "family style." On the downside, the place never felt too clean and the floors are extremely sticky, and sometimes the stench was a little unappetizing. The staffers were working like mad to keep things tidy, but with the large flow of customers, it was hard to keep up. Overall, the food was pretty good and I was very pleasantly surprised. This is a glowing review coming from somebody like me!
Blue Lagoon: This is the ship's 24 hour free eatery, a quick service snack bar. It serves up comfort food like chicken wings, fried chicken tenders, fish and chips, tomato soup, hot dogs, spinach dip, strawberry shortcake and the like. The menu is limited, but the food was pretty good. It is a great place for a snack and was a hit with all of the kids on board. It has very quick table service, so you sit down and order off a menu. We only ate here once, but the time between placing our order and getting our food was less than 5 minutes! This place was always crowded, but tables turned really fast so I never saw anybody waiting for a table here.
Room Service: Hands down, the Star had the very best room service I have ever had onboard any major cruise line! I've cruised Celebrity, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Carnival and none of their room service food compares to NCL! The macaroni and cheese was fantastic, and so was the BLT sandwich and the individual pizzas. The menu was varied (sandwiches, pizzas) and even had a children's menu (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chicken fingers, etc.). Room service always took anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 hour to arrive, but the food was always hot and fresh. The room service breakfast menu was severely lacking, though, with only pastries and cold cereals (no hot food) available. As a result, we never ordered room service for breakfast.
Chocoholic Buffet: This was fun and was set up in the Market Cafe. The line was long but moved quickly. It was a chocolate overload! Tons of fudgy cakes, pies, truffles, cookies, ice cream -- whatever you wanted, it was here! There was even a tray of white chocolate krispie treats and a chocolate fountain for dipping fruit. There were also several ice sculptures and chocolate displays. Not much to photograph, but lots to eat!
SERVICE Service was hit or miss. We found the employees to be either super friendly or very surly -- I'd say the mix was an even 50/50. I don't know if this is a result of freestyle cruising or what, but several of our waiters and our surly cabin steward seemed to really hate their jobs! Our cabin steward was the worst steward we have ever had on any of our many cruise vacations. He was unfriendly and unaccommodating in all respects. If we kindly asked for an extra pillow, we had to ask several more times before he'd bring it. And certain days, we'd have fresh towels and others he wouldn't bother to exchange them (even when they were on the floor and we had specifically asked for them)! On Monday, we got 2 washcloths but no hand towels. On Tuesday, we'd get one washcloth and one hand towel. On Wednesday, we'd get 2 hand towels but no washcloths. It was strange. Our shower soap/shampoo dispenser went empty 2 days before he bothered to refill it (and only halfway at that)! And the cabin never felt clean! I think he vaccummed our floor once during the entire trip. It was just gross. And on the last night before we disembarked, he had already started to put out stuff for the new guests! Sorry, but I am still on vacation and this is still our cabin for the next night! I know what you are thinking -- "oh, these people must be jerks." That is not true! We are friendly to a fault! I am always cheerful and was so friendly and congenial to this man -- but he treated us like dirt.
The service in the free dining rooms was okay, but I have to admit that I did miss the personal service you get from traditional cruise ship dining -- the same waiter every night. Freestyle Cruising is a real trade off in that respect. The service was very good in all of the specialty restaurants with the exception of Endless Summer, and the service was truly exceptional at Le Bistro. The bar servers were bordering on stalkers! As soon as you entered a public lounge or bar, several would start following you to your seats, each trying to beat the other to take your order! It was very intrusive and I felt like the waiters were fighting over my automatic 15% gratuity! One night in the Spinnaker Lounge, we had THREE waiters trying to stalk us to take our orders! They were literally falling all over each other to be the first to our table! And in the main showroom, you'd have a line of waiters follow you to your seat! It was ridiculous.
ENTERTAINMENT We only stopped by briefly to a few of the production shows and we were disappointed. It was a bit less-than-stellar cruise ship fare. We live in Las Vegas and get the best jugglers, acrobats, singers, etc. so maybe I have too high expectations. Other passengers seemed to love the production shows. The theater layout was horrible, though (see Ship/Public Spaces for more details). The bars had good entertainment. Mr. Motown played his synthesizer with classic tunes, and the Pat Juneau band was an okay rock/pop band. The best bar entertainment was Sean, the Canadian guitarist in the Red Lion Pub. He was very talented, friendly, and was fun to listen to. The Second City comedy troupe was also on board and performed 3 shows that were painfully unfunny. This must've been the "D-List" Second City players. Truly, their shows were awful.
There were lots of fun and different activities on board. There was a murder mystery dinner (we missed the signup but it sounded fun) and lots of poolside events, parties, trivia games and contests. There were also several really fun wine tastings, martini tastings, sangria tastings, beer tastings, etc. We did the martini tasting and it was a bargain at $15 per person. We were poured 5 nearly full-sized martinis each! I'd recommend sharing because we were drunk the rest of the afternoon. The casino was lively, large and spacious with a good variety of slots and table games. It was very smoky, though! The bars onboard were well laid out and comfortable, and the specialty drink menus were fantastic! The specialty martini menu was my favorite, and the prices ranged from $9.75 to $10.50 (plus a 15% auto gratuity) for a tasty martini. Specialty shots were around $3.50 to $5 each.
CROWDS The ship is huge but it never felt too large. The upside of traveling on a huge cruise ship is that there is always something to do. The downside is that sometimes lines are very long and the ship can seem crowded -- I always felt like I was in somebody's way no matter where I was walking. Tender service in Cabo San Lucas was a nightmare. It took almost 2 hours to get off the ship and get into port. Not good when your stay is only 5 hours. It severely cut into our time there and it was very disappointing. The ship passed out tender tickets and we were in the 3rd group. I feel bad for the people with numbers behind ours! Since it was Thanksgiving week, there were over 980 children on board. The kid's program must be pretty good because the nuisance from the kids was minimal. There were hardly ever any kids in the specialty restaurants, but the Market Cafe buffet was overrun with screaming kids, running amok. The pool deck was also packed with kids and was a nightmare. Teens were constantly running through the halls at night so you could hear the thud thud thud of footsteps 'til the wee hours. I can't speak about the kids programs since we don't have any.
DRESS CODE Not having to pack a ton of formal clothes was nice. A tiny part of me did miss getting dressed up, but plenty of passengers did get fancy the optional formal night. Jeans are allowed in all of the restaurants on board except the Versailles main (free) dining room. The order of the day here was resort casual! Relax and be comfortable! It was awesome. We found that a casual skirt and top for me and a pair of nice jeans/khaki pants and a polo shirt for my husband was the perfect attire for everything we wanted to do onboard. We were never turned away from any venue for being under or over dressed. We did hear one woman complaining that she and her husband were turned away from the main Versailles dining room because he had on jeans and she was wearing sweatpants! I would have turned them away too! How hard is it to look a little nice, or either choose Aqua or the buffet for dinner if you don't want to change pants? They weren't being asked to wear a tuxedo, suit or cocktail dress, just business casual/resort casual attire. Just my 2 cents on that one.
PORTS OF CALL Port visits are so subjective, so I won't cover much here. All three ports, Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta, were great fun as always. Note that the tender service at Cabo San Lucas is EXTREMELY SLOW. So if you make plans on your own, as we always do, don't schedule anything until 1:00 just to be safe. It took hours to get off the ship using the tenders, and it severely cut into our day in Cabo. What a drag! Tendering in Puerto Vallarta was a breeze, as no tickets were required. This was our third visit to Mexico, and we had the best time of all this trip! No hassles, great food, friendly locals. It was a blast. And remember -- you can't be taken advantage of unless you let yourself be taken advantage of! Don't listen to the onboard shopping consultant -- shop locally, try the non-recommended local restaurants, get a local taxicab (not the white cabs as incessantly preached in Puerto Vallarta -- walk out on the street and get a yellow cab for less than half the price)!
DISEMBARKATION Getting off the ship was very, very quick and easy! Just pick your desired time and off you go! The cruise director was even standing at the gangway wishing us a safe journey home. It was a nice and easy sendoff. Getting through customs was a piece of cake too. We just handed in our form and showed our passport and within seconds, we were back to our car. Very, very easy.
BOTTOM LINE This was my first trip on NCL and will not be my last! Freestyle Cruising has its trade-offs, but I feel like it was designed for people like us (30s professional couple, no kids). I wouldn't rule out other cruise lines, but it will be very hard to go back to traditional cruising after this experience. If you plan to eat at the specialty restaurants, estimate an additional $400 to $500 for this. We had all those specialty dinners, several drinks, bought some souvenirs, and including our service charges, our extra cruise bill was under $600 for two people. Not bad! The service may be spotty, but the experience is fantastic -- in fact, this is the most relaxing vacation we have ever taken because we were allowed to do things on OUR schedule! If you are a foodie (and love eating at different types of restaurants), if you love to "do your own thing" on vacation, if you love relaxing and taking it easy, if you love privacy, and if you love having a variety of onboard activities, this ship is for you! If you are traveling in a large group or if you prefer traditional cruise dining, activities and schedules then this ship is not for you.