Here are some scattered thoughts on my trip on the Star, Miami-Los Angeles, starting October 13, 2013.
- It was a really good trip. I don't think I've ever been so sad to have a cruise be over.
- We arrived in Miami a few days early, and took a Segway tour of the Miami River that left from the Bayside Marketplace, which is near the port. We were lucky and had a really good guide, and the two of us were the only gliders (it was the end of the season). http://segwaymiami.com/ I mention other Segwaying opportunities below. I've managed to convert several of my fellow travelers into Segway addicts. It's a lot of fun. It takes a few minutes to get used to it, and you have to be able to stand for long periods, but I think it's easier than riding a bicycle.
- We happened on a very good restaurant in Miami Beach called Altamare, 1233 Lincoln Road. It's in a quieter part of town and had very, very good food. Not cheap, but a good deal for what we got - several kinds of fish we had never heard of and turned out to be delicious.
- A more downscale but also very good seafood restaurant is Garcia's, on the river. Informal. Local boat owners dock there to eat. Some locals I know suggested it.
- Embarcation was a mess, but that was mostly not NCL's fault. They had immigration, Coast Guard, and health inspections, and everything got delayed. I think we ended up leaving three hours late.
- I was not prepared to like Cartagena, but I did. Pretty city, felt safe. Again, we took a Segway tour and covered a lot of ground. http://segwaycartagena.com/ The owner is a native who attended college in the US. Very nice guy. Pay the extra $ to have him arrange a taxi from the port to the starting site - you probably don't want to deal with taxi drivers at the port. Even if you don't want to go into town, the area immediately around the dock is nice - it's only after you leave the port gates that you end up in a maelstrom of traffic. You have to assume that the taxi driver knows what he's doing because he's still alive and driving, so relax and enjoy the experience, in which you're sure you're going to crash every 15 seconds. The segway tour is mostly in blocked-off streets with little traffic.
- All I can say about the Panama Canal is: Get up early and be prepared to stay up all day. It's an amazing piece of engineering.
- Puntarenas was an interesting port. It's a somewhat industrial town and is trying to build tourist business. It was pleasant, and we got internet access at a cafe near the port. I walked into town with one of the other people in our group, and he bought many bags of coffee at the MegaSuperMart for much less than the same coffee was selling for in the tourist stalls by the dock. We also took the bus/boat/train tour, which was good even though the train part lasted a bit too long. We did get to see howler monkeys from the train, and some people (not me) saw macaws from the boat.
- We didn't do official excursions in the Mexican ports. In one port (I think it was Puerto Chiapas, but it might have been Hualtulco) the ship left an hour and a half late because one of the excursions had a delay of some kind. They held the ship for the dozen people on the bus.
- We ended up taking a mini-van tour of Puerto Vallarta. We had intended to go across the street (a rather long way) to shop with some crew members, but one thing led to another and we ended up driving around for a few hours. The driver took us to a little restaurant that ended up having very good food (kickback to the driver, I'm sure, but it still wasn't a ripoff). It's a nice town. I'd go back.
- If you want drugs - sexual dysfunction remedies, Flexaril, etc. - Cabo San Lucas seems to be the place to go. There were dozens of English-language pharmacies selling that kind of thing. I thought the main part of town was noisy, crowded, and hot, but if you like Senor Frogs and other tourist-oriented joints you might like it. From what I could see, the part outside downtown is very nice.
- We had long immigration delays in Los Angeles. If you have a flight that leaves before 1pm, please consider changing it, as other travelers told us that delays are common at the Port of Los Angeles.
- I had heard that the relocated spa was not as good as the ones on the Gem, Pearl, and Jade, and that's probably true, but it was worth buying a spa pass. There's a small lap pool, a bubble pool, and a hot tub in the common area, along with padded lounge chairs, and the men's area had hot and cold plunges and dry and steam saunas. I assume the women's dressing room had the same. The other ships I mentioned had a forward view and heated tile lounge chairs, but the Star had a rear view and unheated (but padded) lounge chairs.
- The spa ended up being expensive, because I had a massage from a guy named Travis who turned out to be really, really good. One massage was not enough, and massages in that spa are not cheap. He's from Canada, and the training there is different from that in the US. He had much more knowledge of anatomy - how the muscles and tendons fit together - than any other therapist I have encountered anywhere. He also had a very calming and pleasant personality. I mostly had "deep tissue" massages, but I also had some lighter "Swedish" massages, and he excelled at both. He also does wraps (which somehow I didn't try), scrubs, facials, etc. I can't recommend him highly enough.
- I thought Travis was especially good, but of a dozen or so shipboard spa employees to whom I have given my business over the years, only one was a dud. Steiner is expensive, but their employees are well selected and trained. If you've never had a massage, splurge and give it try. They have a constantly changing variety of specials, which can be confusing, but there's usually an offer that will give you a massage and a facial or foot scrub or other extra service at a reduced price. I wish they would just offer a "ten hours of whatever treatments you want for a low fixed price" package, but they don't.
- We had David Contreras as our concierge. He's terrific. Very friendly, and very competent. I don't think he sleeps. I could never do his job - I'd have thrown some passengers overboard - but he just smiles and laughs and makes things work. He's amazing.
- Cagney's was very good. Ginza and Moderno are also very good, but suffer from being next to bars with very loud amplified music. I thought Le Bistro had gone downhill in both food and service.
- The ship's officers were around and about. I spotted the captain, staff captain, hotel director, food and beverage director, and executive chef in the passenger areas many times. I like that.
- This sailing followed a trans Atlantic repositioning, and many passengers did the repo and canal back to back. Consequently, the crowd was older than usual and tended not to eat in the specialty restaurants. The spa was not very busy.
- I didn't visit the bars much, but lots of other people did. The musicians in the lobby and the lounge by the specialty restaurants were very good, better than the musicians on the Gem, but they were usually much too loud. Perhaps NCL owns a share of a hearing aid firm and it's trying to increase business.
- I saw two of the production shows and they were good. I didn't see "Shout!", but it didn't get good reviews from other passengers.
- I also saw two of the guest artist shows. One was two aerialists (silks) and the other was an illusionist and his assistant. Both shows were good when they were doing what we came to see, but there was a lot of filler material - about half of each show. The aerialists came out dressed as ducks, or maybe clouds, or cotton balls, and rolled around the stage on scooters for a while. They showed slides of platitudes and children. I suppose they were trying to show they are Sensitive Souls doing Great Art, but since neither I nor anyone I talked to had a clue of what they were getting at, about half the show was a pointless waste of time. But when they were actually up in the air they were very good.
- The illusionist was similar. Really good tricks, and I don't have a clue how he did most of them. Unfortunately, though, there were not one but two movies in the middle, and 10 minutes spend trying to get us to applaud louder. That was pathetic. Again, good when they were doing what we came to see, but a lot of wasted time. Lots of live animals in the act, which must be living somewhere in the ship.
- The final show, Elements, included the production cast, the aerialists, and the illusionist. It was very good. I can't easily describe it, nor would I want to spoil any surprises by doing so, but If you can see only one show, that's the one to see.
- We didn't take the Segway tour in Puerto Vallarta, but there is one, and it works with the Star's schedule. http://www.segwayvallarta.com/ Maybe next time.
- The arrival to the Cabo San Lucas harbor was especially beautiful.
Overall, it was a great trip. The crew was great - friendly and helpful.