First off, I would like to say that this cruise was the most fun I have had on board to date. The ship's entertainment staff was friendly, engaging, and resourceful. However, the hotel/resort elements of the Star were that of a moderate 2-star hotel at best. The critiques that I would offer are, mostly, small details that can and should be remedied rather quickly. As far as this review goes I will organize my thoughts based on the various aspects of the experience.
We embarked from the Port of Miami on May 5, 2014. The night before we flew in to Fort Lauderdale and took the tri-rail to Miami. We stayed the night at the Red Roof Inn Miami Airport since they offer a free shuttle service to the port. The room was inexpensive and nice. The hotel had clearly undergone a renovation recently.
The NCL portion of the port was well maintained. The security section was as painless as it could be. My partner and I had no trouble making our way through. The staff was very friendly and helpful. The waiting area was acceptable. While it had no frills, it got the job done. Once our group number was called and we made our way to the ship, it was an unexpected joy that the ship had laid out a red carpet on our way across the deck and into the atrium. It was also quite pleasant that we were not immediately bombarded with bar staff. We were allowed to make our way about the ship and explore at our leisure. This made for a nice first impression of the Star itself.
Restaurant and Food:
Since we had been able to board the ship relatively early we decided to make our way to the main dining room, Versailles, in order to have a nice lunch to commemorate our first transatlantic cruise. We were able to find the dining room easily enough and there was a menu posted outside. We gave our cabin number to the hostess and she seated us at a table for 2. At this point though, little things started to go badly that couldn't help but add up to a less than stellar first trip to an NCL dining room. Our waiter was a bit on the slow side despite there being very few passengers on board yet. He was also somewhat difficult to understand. I tried my best to catch his name, but his accent was too thick for me to make out. I chalked up his slow response time to him needing to get things ready for embarkation, though so did not say anything. When we finally got our water and menus, my partner and I both ordered the Shrimp Cesar Salad. I ordered an appetizer of Chicken Noodle Soup as well. The soup came, and I cannot say that I would ever recommend it to anyone. It was clearly soup that had been dehydrated and then reconstituted with chicken broth. The noodles had a horrible texture, and the vegetables were undercooked. (Later in the cruise we saw the same noodle soup at the late night snack area. It was indeed not much more than semi-fancy ramen which one ladles broth onto.) The salad I had was rather good and was the highlight of lunch.
About that time however, my partner notices that his water class has a rather nasty chip out of the rim. Had he been drinking out of that side, he could have easily cut his lip open on it. Rather than cause a conflict, he decided not to say anything, so we order dessert. I order a cup of coffee and "Blueberry" Cheesecake. As you can likely already tell, I was not a fan of their cheesecake. There was in fact nothing blueberry about it. The fruit compote topping was expected, and it had plenty of berries, but none of them blue. Also, my coffee cup was stained. It was clearly clean, but it was so old that it had coffee stains in the bottom of it. I would think that someone in the kitchen would keep such a thing away from the passengers.
While I would like to say that our somewhat negative experience in the main dining hall was a one time occurrence, I simply cannot. During the first week of the voyage both dining halls underwhelmed. Service was slow, steaks were consistently overdone (or had at least sat too long under heat lamps), and desserts were tiny at best. Even their signature Raspberry Truffle Cake was lack-luster. That said, the second week saw a definite change in both the quality of food and service on board. Perhaps the rumblings throughout the ship about the MDR being poor got to the higher ups. Whatever the reason, the 2nd half of the cruise was a huge improvement. Once we found a waitress we liked (so much so that we both wrote up a hero of the cruise card for her), whom could get the food from the kitchen out to us in a timely manner, with a smile and charm we continued to go back to her and did not have a bad meal.
We also had the chance to attend 2 of the specialty restaurants on board, La Cucina and Moderno Churrascaria. Both of the specialty restaurants were top notch. The food was leagues above anything in the MDR, in almost all cases. It was definitely worth the extra cover charge. I don't think I could eat at them every night, but some may find that the ultimate dining plan is a good investment. The tiramisu in La Cucina was BY FAR the best dessert I had over the 2 weeks on board. It was amazingly good.
As far as our cabin is concerned there are pros and cons. More pros than cons, but the cons I think are mostly a personnel issue than anything. We stayed in a balcony cabin set as a king size bed. The room is smaller than other balcony cabins we have had, but it functioned. The shower was very nice, and had a sliding door to offer privacy. The toilet area had a similar door, though the room with the stool was tight. A long legged, or heavy set person would have had some trouble getting in and out I think.
When we first arrived in our cabin the steward greeted us as normal. He told us that if we needed anything to just write him a note and leave it on the bed. As we looked around we noticed that several things had not been cleaned. Namely, the balcony windows and doorway were cloudy and dirty and the mirrors in the room all had smudges and fingerprints. The doorframe in the restroom was grimy as well. It felt as if our steward had done the minimum of what he had to do. The bed was nicely made, floors swept and towels folded neatly, but beyond that the cabin needed more attention. We wrote him a note as he asked us to, but it took days before our mirrors got cleaned. We also ended up with towels that were spotted with rust and towels that were thread bare and tearing. While I know the ship is older, like the coffee cup I mentioned earlier, these kinds of things should never be seen by a guest.
As far as the balcony itself goes, we had an enclosed balcony. There was enough room for 2 chairs and a small table, but again it is smaller than the last balcony we had. We noticed that there was bits of broken glass still on the balcony from where the sliding door had been replaced. Additionally, the door itself permanently has a handprint in it from where the workman who installed it put his hand on it and then put up the outer pane of glass.
Closet space and drawer space was sufficient for our clothes and suitcases could be stored under the very hard bed. I would prefer a bit softer nights sleep, but that is just personal preference. The last thing about the cabin to note was that our steward seemed almost robotic. He made overtures of friendliness, but it seemed forced, and not at all genuine. I hate to sounds like such a negative Nancy about him, but he was definitely far from what I expected from NCL.
The common areas of the ship were kept up very well for an older vessel. There were renovations that were being done while we were aboard, and for the most part did not effect us at all. One that stands out though is when the workmen were laying new carpet in the midship stairwell. The strong smell of Acetone based products was rather disturbing. It made the eyes itch, and stomach turn. This probably could have waited unitl the ship goes in for dry dock next Feb.
The Java Bar on deck 7 has very good coffee, but you have to pay extra for it. The Spinnaker Lounge on Deck 7 aft is also well kept and many activities take place here. They even turn it into the ship's dance club in the evening. The casino is small and understated which suited me just fine. It is tucked away on deck 6 forward just aft of the theatre. Speaking of which, the theatre is quite large and easily accommodates the ships quests. The balconies on the upper level offer a good alternative place to sit if you would rather not sit in a flip down seat. Some of the chairs on the lower level were broken, but the crew is aware of it, and was apparently waiting on replacement parts.
It became increasingly obvious where NCL spends its money. The common areas of the ship were some of the best I have seen, particularly the theatre. It is well designed and functions very well. They clearly cater to an older crowd with the lack of clubs and the increase of general entertainment space. We never felt at a loss of things to do and places to go on our long voyage.
Entertainment and Activities:
The Cruise Director and his staff do a wonderful job. The production shows with the onboard singers and dancers are of high quality, particularly their final show, Paradis. The guest performers are of a high quality as well. Again, it is clear where NCL is investing their money. Not all of the shows will cater to everyone though, but if you think you will like a show, you probably will.
There are MANY activities for the size of the vessel. They have game shows, shuffleboard, bingo, daily trivia, the library, dedicated card and board game space and daily meet-ups. The meet-ups themselves are placed strategically throughout the ship and at appropriate times. Also, if you find that the meet-up will be better served at a different time, the staff will change it. This is what happened to us and the Friends of Dorothy group. It was originally set for 7:00pm every evening, but we found this to be a touch too late. We felt that 6:00pm would be better for our group so that we had more time to see the shows and grab dinner. The staff changed the daily time on the Freestyle Daily for us and we couldn't have been happier. There are also groups for single cruisers, AA meetings, bridge players, etc. If you can't find something to do as a group and would rather go it alone, there are plenty of nooks and semi-private places where you can go to listen to the waves, catch some sun, or read a book.
Ports of Call and Excursions:
On this particular cruise we had stops in Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel Island (Azores), Dover, England and Helsingborg, Sweden before disembarking in Copenhagen, Denmark. The ports themselves are all very nice. We decided to explore the ports on our own without purchasing shore excursions from NCL (except the London On Your Own transportation).
In Ponta Delgada we got together with a couple other folks from Cruise Critic and hired a taxi driver to take us around the island for 25 euros each. We were with him for about 4 hours and he took us to amazingly beautiful overlooks, the hot springs, 2 of the 3 main crater lakes, and the tea factory. The NCL excursions that had these sites were at least double what we paid our driver, and we didn't have to be on a packed bus. At the end of our private tour we spent time in the shopping center that is within a 5 minute walk from the ship. There is free Wi-Fi in the mall, and the password/username is displayed prominently on the wall when you walk in. This saved us from considering the extremely over-priced onboard Wi-Fi.
As I said earlier, we did the London On Your Own tour from Dover. The bus left the ship later than anticipated, but NCL gave us more time in London to compensate. London is a beautifully well kept city, especially given how large it is. The bus dropped us at Victoria Embankment which is directly across the Thames from the London Eye (def. worth the 19.99 pound price tag), Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the houses of Parliament, Downing Street, and Trafalger Square. We had 4.5 hours to explore that area of London. Having met 4 new friends at the large LGBT group we had a great time together exploring London. The bus ride back left a couple of folks in London. They missed their rendezvous time, and we even waited 30 extra minutes for them. We had to get back though, so everyone understood. We could have possibly used the train station in Dover to get to London a bit quicker, but that would have been a little more expensive and without the guarantee of the ship waiting for us if we were late. Overall, we were very pleased with the bus ride and NCL portions of the day.
Helsingborg is a quiet little hamlet across the bay from Copenhagen. While it is a sweet little town, it could easily be left off of future itineraries. There is no reason to buy an NCL excursion for this port. The town is small enough that anything you want to see can be seen on your own. You can catch the ferry across to Helsingnor, Denmark if you want to go to Hamlet's Castle or the bus to go to Sofiero Castle. The most interesting thing about the town was the fact that they played American Patriotic tunes on their clock tower bell every hour. America the Beautiful and Home on Range made regular appearances. The next TA following this itinerary replaces Helsingborg with Amsterdam for good reason.
Disembarkation and Copenhagen:
The disembarkation process was well handled and as smooth as embarkation. Not much to say about it really other than it was well handled and that announcements were clear and timely. Cabs were waiting if you wanted one. We decided to catch a cab to the central train station, but we should not have done so. The cab driver we had was the only rude person we met in Denmark. We got out and walked. It was just easier. The trains run very well in Copenhagen so it was easy enough to get into downtown. From there we stored our bags in the lockers and explored historic Copenhagen. The city is fairly flat, so as long as you have good shoes on walking is rather easy. There is a bus system, but we decided to save money and get the exercise. We stayed at Wake Up Copenhagen, which is a short 5-10 minute walk from Central Station. The room was tiny, but served our needs. Be ready to pay more than you think for everything in Scandinavia. While the exchange rate is 5:1, you will pay almost $2 for a small cheeseburger that would cost you $0.89 in the States. Also, money exchange businesses charge almost $10 per transaction, so either pool all of you cash to change at once, or just use a debit card. Most places required a PIN, so credit cards are less useful than your debit.
The easiest way to get to the airport would be to take the train. From Central Station follow the signage and it takes you right to the airport. It is super easy and will cost WAY less than a cab. A train ticket cost us about $5.
Overall, this cruise was very good. The common areas where we spent the bulk of our time were excellent. Once we found a good server the restaurants improved as well. Detail work in our cabin and early in the voyage would have made this trip near perfect. The people that we met have been in touch with us and we are planning our next cruise together. NCL made most things smooth and easy. It was a shame that the Hotel section of the ship was so vastly underwhelming compared to everything else. For solid entertainment and a quiet voyage across the Atlantic, the NCL Star is a strong contender.