Norwegian Cruise Line Norwegian Star by Fred Herman Southern Caribbean December 5, 2010
I should have seen it as an omen. The government goons who keep Our Nation safe from Muslim terrorists by molesting American airline passengers stole a little pocket knife - valued at around 75 cents thirty years ago - at the San Francisco airport. Its two inch blade was dull (never sharp), I used the bottle opener to clean my nails, but it had sentimental value. It was attached, with no problem ever, to my key chain on trips to many lands. An 80-year-old man barely able to hobble was unlikely to force his way into the cockpit with it and demand transport to Havana. They offered to mail it back (two 41-cent stamps?) for eleven bucks. They also took a 99-cent can of shaving cream, presumably because it could become a bomb. Like my shoes?
Well, okay, the facts: In making copies of my passport to assist protectors of our homeland security, Mary forgot my passport in her copy machine. She discovered the error in San Francisco, 90 miles away, and offered to drive back for it. "Naaah," I replied. "Of 3,000 passengers, a third are likely to overlook passports. This cruise is from Miami to Los Angeles, and if it's a problem. however unlikely, I just won't go ashore in Colombia." No cruise line or federal agency, no matter how spooked by Bush, Rove and 9/11, could be that picky. So assess Mary 5%, me 10% for being as wrong as I've been since suggesting at age 11 that Hitler was unlikely to invade Russia. Combine 15% more between Norwegian Cruise Lines and Kandy's Karefree Kruisin' for not making it crystal clear to even a Neanderthal: No passport, no cruise! No provisional alternatives, no other proof of legitimacy accepted.
Our government gets the remaining 70%. It was indeed that picky. Not that our government was even there. Two cute little things were there inform me that I couldn't come aboard, and there's no appeal. Da gummint made sure that no higher authority was around for an appeal, based on varied defenses: I had photocopies of my passport and IDs up the gazoo, but they wouldn't do. A professor friend noted that Uncle Sam has complete files on everyone so it had to be easy to determine I am - er - legitimate. But it was hopeless. Nobody to help. As our luggage was already in our cabin, we feared the Norwegian Star would sail without us, rendering our enforced Miami stay tougher yet. It took four agonizing hours, full of the stress we came east to avoid, but NCL finally produced our undies minutes before the ship sailed without us.
Victoria, a nice customer relations lady paid to tell us how sorry she was but it was out of her hands, got us two nights in an upscale hotel at "reduced" rates as neighbor Marlene, the cat rescuer with a key to our house to feed our cat, Fed Exed the elusive passport, guaranteed by 8 a.m. Tuesday; it was in the concierge's hands by 7:45 a.m. Within hours we were aloft to Cartagena, Colombia, arriving 12 hours before a Norwegian Star that kept us waiting on the dock two more hours.
The NS sailed Sunday afternoon. We caught it Wednesday morning. Thanks for understanding, said a form letter from the nice PR lady. We don't for a moment understand. I try to estimate what this bureaucratic idiocy cost us: $800+ for two fares to Colombia, $500+ for two hotel nights and meals, $80 for taxis and car rental, a $70 Fed Ex fee for openers. Plus unmeasurable (except by lawyers) mental anguish. For zero reason. It was asinine bureaucracy no reasonable person could forgive. An even partial refund? I used to insert in my talks "pause here for laugh."
But the other ten days? Programs at sea were Las Vegas style. Much glitz, but lounge show talent, folks unlikely to make the varsity. Staff had not mastered the secret of lighting without shining blinding beams into audience eyes. A heavily accented (every Star crew member seemed heavily accented) asked audiences eight times per show to "put your hands together for ..."
Food was adequate, especially in eating sites with no additional charges. The default cafeteria had admirable selections of everything, staff picking up plates and utensils the nanosecond the last forkful of food was chewed, Noisy dining rooms for folks who like to be served well prepared food were excruciatingly slow even with huge staffs. You didn't go there if trying to catch another show. Doubling up, four or six to a table, was always fun. It's what cruises are about. One cafe advertised "open 24 hours a day - closed from 4 to 5 a.m."
French, Italian, Japanese, "Tex-Mex", steak house and other "cover charge" eateries featured their cultures at extra cost. Bi-i-i-i-ig extra cost. Twenty-five bucks in the French place. But ... ten bucks more for the sea food entree. Ten more for a glass of nothing-special wine. Service charge/gratuities added to bills without proof these "tips" actually went to the help. (We found the same dare-I-call-it-scam in Florida; California still relies on over-pricing.) NCL advertises "free-style cruising." That means you can eat when you like, instead of at assigned times at assigned tables. But damlittle is free with NCL.
The nickel-and-diming transcended normal bounds, giving the word c-h-e-a-p new meaning. A buck for soda that in minimal fast food joints comes from a machine - all you can drink. Mary bought an Irish coffee and asked for a bit more plain coffee in her glass; the water brought a bill for $1.75. There was laundry service - forty bucks for a $2 laundromat machine load. Internet was $1 a minute. (It was 50 cents for a half hour in Cartagena.) "Toll-free" 800 calls were $5.95 a minute. I enjoyed (with some guilt) being pushed around airports in a wheelchair; I heard late that wheelchair rentals were available on the Star. For $900!
One more example of Norwegian Cruise Lines relentlessly pursuing any spare change left in passenger pockets: A single afternoon's "pizzazz" infomercials and money traps included indoor and outdoor casinos (to my knowledge not subject to gaming commissions), an auction of art that didn't come from crew or passengers, a $20 wine tasting, a jewelry sales presentation, a "Cabo San Lucas shopping talk," a talk on future cruises and "rewards," "Pathways to Pilates" for $12, a mojito tasting for $15, an "ultimate skin clinic" seminar, a "lose weight with hypnosis" seminar and "body sculpture camp."
Ports we encountered:
- Cartagena, which Mary and I did on our own, rich condos amid poor people. The contrast was startling. We ate native foods outdoors as monotonous Latin beats emanated from speakers. Every now and then I'd recognize the word "navidad," reminding us it was the Santa season.
- Puntarenas, Costa Rica; I adored that little country, not only because of the pride our guide displayed in it, but because it abolished its army years ago and survives as independently as ever. The World Health Organization ranks Costa Rica's medical system 36th compared to the United States' 37th. Its people pay 9 percent of their income for health care - which covers all tests, all medicine no matter how expensive, and even dental care.
- Huatalco, Mexico, described to us as a tourist trap; I didn't go ashore. Mary bought a few items from hawkers on the dock and beach.
- Acapulco, Mexico; what seemed important to our guide was the hotel at which John Wayne, Johnny Weissmuller and other Hollywood notables stayed a half century ago. He did take us to the famed cliff divers, but from our vantage points we couldn't quite see their entries into the Pacific. And, of course, shopping. T-shirt and basket shops galore.
- Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, We were by a sleepy little fishing resort of a few thousand which we saw quarter century ago grown tenfold into a development of gringo homes with all the big city pluses and minuses. A dozen K's is surely as much as anyone wants to read of my-two-weeks-at-sea, but I'd be remiss if I omitted the ordeal of leaving the ship in Los Angeles. Of 2,400 passengers served by a crew if more than a thousand, about 90 percent seemed to prefer the "easy off" option. Two thousand stood in a line stretching longer than the ship's three football fields, first to tell overworked customs guys we were not planning to blow up the Pentagon (something like that) and then others that the baggage we schlepped contained nothing to alter reality.
It seemed as if every passenger wanted off the ship now, but when I asked a woman in line ahead of me if she'd do this again, she grinned "sure."
Would I fly again? With the degrading, humiliating, abasement of passengers in effect, not if I can help it. But would I fly the "bare bones" US Airways that took us from S.F. to Philadelphia, Philadelphia to Miami, without food or amusements and broke Mary's luggage to boot? Never. Will I "cruise" again? I'd offer a positive no, but Ms. M is ready. Probably not on Norwegian Cruise Lines, however. Someone should have told me saving a buck isn't everything.