This was our fourth cruise on NCL, and unfortunately, we found it disappointing compared to previous sailings which were all top-notch.
We sailed to the Western Caribbean in December from New Orleans. We stayed at the Hotel St. Marie, where we had a good deal right in the heart of the French Quarter. The taxi ride to the pier was interesting as our driver told us they have been changing the procedure each week as they try to figure out the best logistics for the cruisers. With all the misturns, I was glad the taxi rate is a flat fee. Nevertheless, we arrived at the pier a little early, checked our bags, and walked through the Riverwalk where we were able to take some nice pictures of the ship. With priority boarding due to our suite booking, we sailed through the embarkation process during which time we were introduced to Patrick, our concierge, and taken to Cagney's for an elegant lunch while we waited for other family members who were not in suites to embark.
Our cabin was ready early. The suite was set up basically like other cabins, but a bit larger, with a curtain to separate the bed from the rest of the room. Room 10726 is a corner suite, which means a nice deep aft balcony and no neighbors on one side. There was more than ample storage, an espresso coffee maker, a full size tub (what a treat!), two lounge chairs on the balcony, and a bottle of sparkling wine waiting for us in the room. We started enjoying the room, the balcony, and the wine and missed the CC meet-up at the Bier Garten entirely! Although our initial impression of the room was positive, over the seven days we gradually noticed little things like baseboards falling off the wall, grimy doors, and trinkets that were evidently left in corners by previous suite guests, that made us question both the overall maintenance and the routine cleaning. This has not been true on any other NCL cruise and we were surprised to have threadbare towels and one day a slightly stained bed cover. Each thing we noticed was minor by itself, but overall the sheer number of small things started to build.
We noticed a similar shabbiness on the rest of the ship...torn upholstery on chairs and interior spaces in need of renovation. (Surprisingly, this actually has been done recently but we couldn't tell.) On the other hand, like all NCL ships there are many great public places to spend time. We found the Star Bar virtually abandoned after happy hour, which turned out to be a lovely place to enjoy a quiet drink without too much party. The Spinnaker was a great party place with fun game-show entertainment most nights and dancing until we were too tired to go on. We only took advantage of one stage show because after years of teaching high school, I find the entertainment always strangely similar to high school assemblies and so prefer eating and relaxing with friends. The entertainment certainly is not of the same calibre as on the Epic, but the singers and bands provided nice diversions in the evenings and the atmosphere at the pool (where there were always plenty of lounge chairs) was very fun.
The food was best at breakfast and lunch in Cagney's, which was made available to us because of our suite. Each morning we enjoyed a wonderful ordered breakfast and Patrick would stop by to see if we needed any help arranging entertainments for the day. For dinner we ate each night in the Versailles. There we began to wonder if the ship is perhaps understaffed as service was very slow and not of the quality we've experienced previously. We were never offered a drink (either alcoholic or not) in the dining room. The plating of the fish dishes was uninspired, although the beef and lamb dishes were plentiful. It was surprising to be served fish without any side dish...a little rice or a few vegetables would be nice. On the other hand, the fish was delicious. One thing I really appreciated was that certain items on the menu were marked as "healthy choices", and indeed they were with more vegetables and less fat. Very tasty.
Our curiosity about the service carried into our experience in the bars, where we sometimes sat unnoticed for quite some time. More than once we went up to the bar ourselves, and another time just left. When we expressed our displeasure about this to the cruise consultant his excuse was that sometimes people don't want to be bothered by the staff who might be seen as pushing drinks. This seemed rather odd to us since we were in a bar. On the positive side, in reading the Freestyle Daily we found many "deals" on drinks ranging from the drink of the day to happy hour in the Star Bar.
The service associated with the suite was excellent. Patrick got us on and off the ship easily in the port and at the beginning and end of the cruise. Orlando, our butler, answered our wishes quickly and brought more goodies than we could eat every afternoon. The service in Cagney's was attentive and was the one place it seemed the staff remembered us from previous visits. To say we were spoiled by the suite experience is an understatement. We will definitely look to book that way again.
Of the four ports we visited, Belize was the only one where we didn't have some type of excursion and that was a mistake. We did venture beyond the cruise pier and found the city dirty and poverty-ridden. It was a somewhat disturbing experience and after that we made sure we had plans for all the ports. The tendering in Belize is annoying. We spent over an hour waiting for tenders to fill (about a half hour each way). The other ports offered more for us because of the fun excursions we took. On the other hand, we also realized that we much prefer cruising where there is a more educational aspect to the excursions. Paying money to lay on a beach seems a little ridiculous to us, but that is a personal preference. Some of our favorite activities were driving the Beach Blast boats in Costa Maya, feeding iguana in Roatan, and taking a Mexican cooking class in Cozumel.
The overall itinerary was well planned, with a nice balance of port and ship time. I especially like having the last day at sea to relax before rejoining society. Disembarkation, aided by Patrick, was a breeze, and although we stood in line for some time to get through customs, we didn't have to wait at all for a taxi.
In summary, we may have to admit that we got what we paid for on this cruise. Although we booked a suite, we did so for less than we we've paid for balconies on other cruises. Having the amenities of the suite at the price we paid was compensation for the otherwise shabbiness of the cruise. We are still left wondering whether NCL's policies have changed to cater more to a low-price bargain mentality at the expense of a luxury experience. We will cruise NCL again, and then we will know, but we won't be cruising on the Star.