We have sailed Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Disney on 8 or 9 cruises. This was our second time sailing with NCL on the Norwegian Star. The first in 2008, a 7 day Mexican Rivera, was a far superior experience as far as service, quality of food and entertainment. But the Panama Canal was high on our bucket list, and the timing was perfect match for our schedule.
Embarkation was relatively quick and uncomplicated, and our cabin was ready when we got on board. Unfortunately, we had been assigned a cabin on deck 5, directly underneath the galley. The noise level was terrible, especially at night when it sounded like constant thunder. Complaints to the Guest Services were to no avail; we were put off and told that they “would investigate” the noise (all the while, knowing full well exactly what was causing it), or that they’d tell the restaurant staff to be more quiet. For 3 full days, no amount of complaining and begging helped. They tried to convince us the ship was 100% occupied and no other cabins were available. Finally, on the 4th. night, we were given another cabin on Deck 8, which was an improvement.
Experiencing the transit of the Panama Canal was indeed the highlight of the cruise! The sun was very intense, and we couldn’t stay outside for more than 10 minutes at a time, but they had a great narrator onboard and showed the passage on the large screen in the Atrium. Cartagena was interesting, but again extremely hot and we were exhausted after our excursion. We really enjoyed Costa Rica, especially the train ride and the Crocodile Boat. Puerto Chiapas was a total waste of time in our opinion, and the excursion “Chiapas Through the Ages” was overpriced and the worst excursion we have ever taken. The tour bus had no air conditioning and the temperature was stifling. Finally a couple hours into the tour, we changed buses, but the AC wasn’t much better. The tour guide was friendly but you could not understand about 70% of her words. The tour, although marketed as a Level 1 (least physical) had us climbing stairs and walking over very uneven ground, which was not the best for one with a bum knee. Once back on board, we attempted to get future credit for another excursion, but that didn’t work out, and we decided not to book any more Shore excursions because NCL did not stand behind the tour they sold us. We had been to the other 3 ports before, so we tried to take it in stride. Cabo was a very early departure (back on the ship at 1:30), and for the most part, all the port times seemed somewhat shorter than what was listed in the original itinerary.
The quality of the food and the dining experience as a whole was mostly below par. It only took one breakfast in the Versailles to cross that off our list – very poorly trained staff who lacked even the most basic understanding of English, unappetizing selections, extremely long wait for food, etc. We switched to the Aqua for dinners, which was an improvement, however some of the staff appeared to be in the early stages of training. The menus were mostly the same every night, and the food was inconsistent. Again, the service was VERY slow, and sometimes the servers were inappropriately inattentive. We recommend the broiled salmon as a stand-by, as most of the chef’s specials and beef entrees were lacking in taste. The Market Café was a satisfactorily mediocre buffet, however it was often very chaotic. Breakfast was the same every day. Lunch varied somewhat but there was way too much pork served, and the sandwiches were disappointing. The Grill, by the poolside, served overcooked hamburgers and hotdogs. We tried the Brazilian Specialty Restaurant and were very disenchanted with that. The staff was polite and friendly and good at filling water glasses but the Gauchos were extremely slow in brining the various meat selections, which left much to be desired. If this had been our first experience with Brazilian BBQ, we would never eat it again. The Chocolate Buffet had amazing sculptures and an excellent selection of mediocre tasting chocolate desserts, however it was a mob scene with pushing and shoving. We had heard good things about the Blue Lagoon, but found it about on a par with McDonalds, maybe worse.
We do not drink or gamble, so we cannot comment on the bars or casino, other than the casino smoke permeated the hallway and even drifted up to the next deck. The Stardust Theater entertainment ranged from “walk out as soon as possible” to excellent, with most somewhere in between. On board activities, music venues, etc. were lacking tremendously compared to other ships we have experienced. By the end of the first week, we were feeling very bored.
NCL appears to have a very firm policy of “NO” and is more profit oriented than passenger satisfaction oriented. We will be looking at other cruise lines for our upcoming Alaskan cruise and will definitely think twice before taking another NCL cruise.