We've done a number of cruises--primarily Celebrity or Holland America in the past--but have decided that NCL has moved onto our new "preferred" cruise company list. We had read some rather critical reviews about the Star and the Trans-Atlantic itinerary, but the price was too good to pass up. We usually travel with another couple with similar interests, and we select a cruise based on the ports and price. We book veranda staterooms because we feel it's worth the extra cost to be able to have a comfortable space to enjoy breakfast in our room, read a good book, or just relax--and we love being able to step out onto our veranda to watch our ship come into port. Our stateroom was a little smaller than ones on Holland America, Celebrity, or Carnival but it was certainly adequate, and the bathroom was actually better with a "real" sliding door for the shower and an additional sliding door to separate the toilet area from the rest of the bathroom if you wanted. The veranda was a little smaller also but still adequate for two chairs and a little table. We had adequate storage and closet space although it could have been arranged more conveniently. Our cabin attendant was very attentive and provided us with a foam "topper" for our bed upon request--and our room was always clean. Being from Seattle, we appreciate having at least decent coffee, so we were thrilled that our stateroom had a little 4-cup coffee pot for our use. We have found "cruise ship coffee" to be consistently awful, so we used it every day with coffee we brought from home and found that it saved us a ton of money from visiting the ship's coffee bar.
We were a little hesitant about NCL's "open dining" policy since we enjoy the relationship with our "server" and expected that waiting for a table would be annoying. NCL has two main dining rooms--the Aqua and the Versailles--both with fairly lenient dress codes--AND a number of alternative restaurant choices. We chose the Versailles for almost ever dinner since we preferred the slightly more formal environment over the Aqua--although the menus were quite similar. We never had to wait more than a few minutes for a table, and the hostess made every effort to seat us in the area of the dining room--and with the server we preferred--whenever possible. One side of their menu included "anytime choices" that didn't vary--soups, salads, and entrees--while the other side of the menu changed daily. We had no problem finding things that we liked, and the food always arrived appropriately hot--which has sometimes been "hit-or-miss" on other cruises. Being on the Star for 23 days--14 of them being on the Transatlantic portion--we wondered if we'd find the food less than appealing, but felt that NCL did a good job with maintaining quality and variety.
The buffet area was an exceptionally good option for breakfast since their variety was generally amazing--always lots of fruit available and there was rarely a significant wait for their omelet station or difficulty finding a place to sit--and they were able to accommodate a lot of people in a short amount of time. The choices for lunch were also good and changed from day-to-day. There were other food service areas that served a nice variety of foods for lunch--such as the BBQ area by the pool. We generally felt that the food available without an extra service charge was good enough that we weren't motivated to spend a lot "extra" at the many alternative restaurants. We did make reservations for their special "jazz" brunch on one of the sea days which was very good with wonderful menu selections and was worth the extra $15 per person. We also visited the Brazilian Churrascaria to celebrate a birthday--$20 per person, but was worth the extra charge because of the unlimited amount of meat provided.
We don't generally cruise "for the food" but felt that NCL compared favorably to their competition. There were little things that weren't quite as good--salad dressings were "bottled" and breads didn't always taste "freshly baked"--but overall the value was exceptional for the cost of the cruise. Overall menu variety wasn't quite as good perhaps, but the quality was consistently good--and the foods items that we preferred on other cruise lines weren't significant enough to affect our future cruise selection. We had prime rib several times, and it compared favorably with restaurants we enjoy at home. Steaks varied in thickness but were usually cooked somewhat to our request --and the quality was again good. NCL did not use wine stewards in the dining room, but your server "tags" your bottle of wine and stores it in their central wine cellar and can access it from any restaurant upon request--which was a nice feature. They also allow you to take the bottle of wine back to your room if you prefer which we thought was an interesting option.
Daytime activities seemed to be adequate and fairly typical for cruise ships--although it's not something that we generally care about. The biggest "negative" for us relating to activities was their Spinnaker Lounge--it was used for many of their activities and presentations--and was very unappealing. We were told that it had been moved to a lower deck to allow for more space for suites--and had apparently been poorly planned. It had no windows, was dark with very crowded/uncomfortable seating, had a postage-stamp sized dance floor, and smelled of mildew. I would hope that they will re-consider their decision to move it to this location or will--at the very least--find a way to make it more appealing.
We also felt that their theatre needs some serious renovation. The seating is standard "theatre seating" but has inadequate "leg room," the seats are very uncomfortable (or actually broken), and the line-of-sight is poor. We'd like to see the renovations include a "re-design" that would make it more "conversational" with little tables and perhaps some couches rather than all "theatre" seating. We felt that the "feature" entertainment each night needed some improvement. Entertainment is not critical for our overall enjoyment of a cruise, but we were surprised that the quality wasn't better--especially when we had so many sea days. The music presented in the various bar areas throughout the ship was not as good as we have experienced on other cruises either, so we're hoping that NCL will put some effort into improving it before we return for our next cruise!
General "policy" compared favorably in most areas with other cruises we have done. The Star was consistently "clean" and staff seemed to generally enjoy their jobs. Some staff that we talked with informally had "moved" from other cruise lines to NCL and were happy with their choice. Staff were always stationed outside dining areas spraying passenger hands with hand sanitizer to prevent the spread of "noro virus"--usually with a smile, saying "washi, washi." It must have helped since we heard nothing about an outbreak of ship-board illness on our 23 days. We also thought it was interesting that more women had responsible jobs on the Star than we have seen on other cruise lines. The only area of "policy" that we thought needed a bit more attention was their lifeboat drill. Obviously none of us enjoy this aspect of our cruise, but staff on the Star did not seem to take their responsibility as seriously as we have experienced on other cruise lines. Much of the instruction is on the TV in your cabin, but we felt that staff still needed to be more involved in getting passengers to the appropriate "muster station" and include more information about how they would proceed in the case of a real emergency. Even though we've done this LOTS of times, we thought that staff need to be more available in the elevator/stair area to direct passengers to their muster station--actually telling passengers "this way"...
The captain and other high-level staff were visible throughout the day which was very nice. We had "daily updates" as to weather and anything else pertinent to our cruise progress. There was a medical emergency on board, and the captain came over the loud speaker system just moments after we first heard the helicopter approaching our ship to tell us what was happening and that a helicopter would be landing to transfer the passenger to a medical facility on shore.
Embarkation and disembarkation was handled efficiently and fairly easily. Passengers are given the option of flexible disembarkation if they are able to manage their own luggage--obviously within specific 'time" limitations. We disembarked the second time that we arrived in Copenhagen and found that independent transportation out of the port can be very difficult. The port where we docked was relatively new with virtually no services available other than limited taxis and a public bus stop. So we used one of their tours/airport transfers that included a four-hour bus tour that ended up at the airport. We thought it was expensive, but the convenience made it worth it.
Being a combined Trans-Atlantic/Baltic cruise, we appreciated that the cost was very reasonable and we were able to see a great variety of Ports. We sailed from Miami, so chose to fly in two days early since our flight landed in Ft. Lauderdale. The transfer from Ft. Lauderdale is fairly expensive, so it was cheaper to have a rental car for the 20-minute trip. We stayed at the Marriott Residence Inn which we thought was a bargain for a two-bedroom/two bath suite since we were travelling with friends.
We had six days out to sea before we hit Ponta Delgado in the Azores and all of us were looking forward to being on firm grand--in spite of the smooth seas we had experienced. There's not a lot to see or do in town, so would recommend a tour from one of the local tour companies. It's a volcanic island with lovely scenery--very lush and green and many lakes formed by the volcanic activity--and you would miss that aspect without a tour. We used GreenZones tours that was a good choice and reasonably priced.
Many people chose to go to London when we docked in Dover, but it's a fairly lengthy bus ride and not a lot of time to see the sights. We decided to do a short (30-minute) train ride to Canterbury which was very fun. The Cathedral there is gorgeous and there are tons of nice little shops and cafes. That left us enough time to return to Dover, explore the castle/grounds there, and do the Operation Dynamo tour--well worth seeing.
Our next stop was Helsingborg, Sweden--with most people heading across the channel to see Kronborg Castle. We tendered, but it worked out fine since it put as right in the center of town and near the ferry terminal. The ferry ride is quick and inexpensive and is a significant contrast from ferries you might take in the U. S.--very comfortable and fast. We knew that we would see other castles on this trip so limited our exploration to the grounds and exterior at Kronborg Castle before returning to Helsingborg. The town has some lovely areas to explore--be sure to walk up the hill to see the view, overlooking the city and channel.
Copenhagen was the port for disembarkation/embarkation so we saw lots of people coming and going. As mentioned, transportation can be a challenge there. Public Bus #26 is a decent option if you don't have luggage with you but otherwise is difficult. It's about a 15-20 minute bus ride into the city, and NCL did not offer a specific transfer. We found that Copenhagen wasn't as easy to get around on our own as we'd anticipated--we'd recommend using a Hop On/Hop Off bus to get a good overview of the city and get you to the sights you want to see unless you are very skilled at using the Metro system. Nyhavn is a gorgeous area--be sure you take the little boat trip there to get the best view of the Danish boats and lovely buildings along the canal.
Warnemunde was the jumping-off port for those who wanted to go to Berlin for the day. The Port is located very near the train and we could watch passengers boarding the train for the three-hour trip to the city. We decided that we wanted to stay "more local" and opted for a small-group tour (24 people) with SPB tours. We took the train to Rostock (which ended up being much more scenic than we'd anticipated) and then went on to Schwerin and the gorgeous castle there. Our tour included the cost of the train plus admission to the castle, and the cost of lunch. We felt it was a great day and was very economical. We had thought about tackling the train on our own, but found that most of the signs were in German and it was not easy to find people who spoke English.
Tallinn was a lovely city with many cruise ships in Port the day we were there. It's a bit of a walk from the Port to the Old Town, and is up hill! We took a small group tour again as it included transportation from the Port--but it would be walkable if you're in good shape. There are tons of great cafes and shops as well as wonderful streets to explore. It's probably not a city that you need to have a tour if you're adventurous and have a good map but it was interesting to hear about their rather recent association with Russia.
St. Petersburg is a Port where it's essential to have an organized tour of some sort. You can take one organized by the cruise line, but it's much nicer (and less expensive) to take one through one of the many recognized tour companies in St. Petersburg. We chose SPB Tours which was an amazing experience and worth every penny that it cost. They take care of all the paperwork for your VISA to allow you to enter Russia and are passionate about giving you a great experience. We chose to do a private tour (for the 4 of us) and ended up being significantly less expensive than it would have been if we had done a "bus" tour from the ship. Visiting Russia is something that we should all do at least once in our lifetime, and we are so glad that we had the chance to do so.
The Port in Helsinki is a bit of a walk to town--and we had a short day there--so we took a taxi to save time. We took the ferry to Soumenlinna Fortress which was a fun place to explore, and then returned to town for the afternoon. There were vendors along the waterfront with typical souvenir options and great local food choices--fabulous salmon and herring among others. We thought it was quite expensive (3.5 Euros for a cup of coffee) although all of Scandinavia tends to be high. Take time to head away from the harbor for some wonderful shopping options.
Cruising through the Swedish archipelago into Stockholm was probably one of the highlights of our cruise. It takes roughly 3 hours to make the trip, so be sure to get up early to enjoy it. (And you'll have LOTS of hours of daylight at this point anyway!) It was amazing to see a "parade" of big cruise ships making their way along narrow waterways between hundreds of small islands. We took the "Hop-on/Hop-off" bus from the pier to town which was very convenient. Our main goal was to see the Vasa Museum which was amazing. Get there early as the wait can be significant to get in. We enjoyed exploring Gamla Stam area of Stockholm and finding a little local café to sample typical Swedish foods--which was very fun.
We had one sea day before returning to Copenhagen where we would disembark, so we appreciated the extra to organize our purchases and luggage. Our weather had been amazing during our 23 days, so having some clouds, fog, and a little rain on this last day made it a little easier to think about getting off! We felt that airport logistics are difficult in Copenhagen and that either a specific tour or transfer from NCL is worth the money--and we're used to being pretty independent when we travel. The airport itself was extremely busy and difficult to navigate. Much of the check-in process is self-serve which isn't difficult once you understand what they want--but we had some difficulty getting questions answered and the most of the instructions weren't in English. We would recommend that you allow plenty of time to complete the process there--although we thought that it was strange that on one ever asked to see our passport or other ID as we were checking in or going through security.
We felt that our first experience with NCL exceeded our expectations and we wouldn't hesitate to book another if it compared favorably with cost and itinerary of our other "favorites."