BACKGROUND - This was my 6th cruise, second with NCL and first Mexican Riviera trip. Previous cruises include HAL Westerdam in 1998 (East Caribbean), Celebrity Mercury in 2000 (West Caribbean), NCL Wind in 2003 (West Caribbean), Carnival Destiny in 2005 (South Caribbean) and Royal Caribbean Legend of the Seas in 2006 (West Caribbean). I went on this trip with my mom and my grandma.
EMBARKATION - We arrived at the port after a half hour shuttle ride from the airport (Super Shuttle?). It was about 11:30am. A porter took our luggage and we entered the holding room, went through security and began to check in. We went through the line, got our pictures taken for our room cards and were walking onto the ship within 30 minutes. I thought the process was well organized and there were even some staff members handing out refreshments.
CABIN - We knew our cabin was going to pose a new challenge for us because there were three of us in an inside stateroom. I slept on the upper bunk while my grandma and mother slept on the lower beds. The upper bunk was not as comfortable as the lower beds. There was plenty of storage space in the bathroom and the tiled shower was large for a cruise ship cabin. Shampoo and body wash is provided in the shower through a dispenser. There is a safe, coffee pot, TV and a fair amount of storage - surely enough for two people but a little more cramped for three people. The only minor disadvantage to the room was that the bedside tables did not have any drawers or shelves and the drawer space throughout the room wasn't very sufficient.
STAFF - We found the staff to be very friendly in almost all situations. The wait staff in Endless Summer was lifeless, but we enjoyed the staff in both the Aqua and Versailles dining rooms. Also, our cabin steward did a wonderful job, and we were always greeted in the hallways by smiling faces. The cruise director was a friendly man from Australia named Simon. He came to our Cruise Critic meeting and spent a little time getting to know us.
FOOD - I believe NCL has improved the quality of their food since the last time I sailed with them in 2003 on the Wind. Even though the breakfast buffet selections became boring after a few days, the fruit was very fresh, bakery items were delicious and scrambled eggs weren't too runny or too dry. We ate breakfast in the Versailles dining room one morning. Extra items on that breakfast menu included Belgian waffles, smoked salmon dishes and biscuits with gravy. The buffet room was well organized - it was divided in two with identical buffets on each side of the room in order to split the crowd in half.
Many lunches were enjoyed off the ship, however, when on board, we usually had salads and pastas in the buffet or burgers near the pool. Selections at lunch seemed to change each day but maintained staples such as fruit, pizzas, Caesar salad, small sandwiches and an array of desserts from fruit tarts to a new moose each day.
Dinner, as I said before, was much better than the last time I sailed with NCL. A few dishes that stuck out in my mind are the Cooking Light Tilapia (the best meal of the week), the Warm Goat Cheese Potato Au Gratin appetizer and Cooking Light Apple Brandy Pork Roast. For the most part, appetizers, salads and desserts were great. Some entrees left something to be desired such as the Mahi Mahi which was way overcooked. We switched between the two free restaurants each night for dinner and found that the Aqua dining room was noisy and the staff not as attentive. We preferred Versailles. One night we ate at Endless Summer and were disappointed in the food. I had red snapper that was overcooked and didn't have much flavor. The chips and salsa were a nice touch at the beginning of the meal but we decided to go back to the other restaurants for the rest of the cruise. We were unable to get a reservation in La Trattoria during the cruise and did not try any of the surcharge restaurants.
I am not a fan of freestyle dining because I don't think you should have to waste time waiting for a table or trying to make a reservation for dinner. During peak eating hours, typical wait time for a table is about 20 to 30 minutes. Although, it was nice to be able to enjoy a drink at a nearby bar while waiting for your table. I prefer traditional dining with the same wait staff, same time and same table each night - just so you don't have to think about it and plan ahead.
As for desserts, we were always pleased with the selection. Typically, a frozen yogurt, a sherbet, a Cooking Light selection, a chocolate treat and some type of fruit tart or cheesecake were offered every night. My favorites included the peach frozen yogurt, pineapple sherbet and the chocolate moose.FITNESS CENTER My mother and I did a lot of exercise during the cruise. We walked the track every morning (4 laps is a mile) and then did some weight training in the gym located at the back of the ship just underneath the track. The walking a jogging track was a little narrow but it was nice to have a clearly marked and separated path (separated by a glass wall) from the rest of the pool and sunbathing area. The fitness center has a lot of machines and was never very busy. There are stationery bikes, elliptical machines, rowing machines, treadmills and a lot of quality weight training machines. There is also a stretch and toning area with yoga balls, free weights and mats. Next to this area is a separate room for aerobic, stretch and spinning classes. We participated in a stretch class one morning that was done very well and was a nice way to start the day. For $30, you could sign up for 3 fitness classes throughout the week that included yoga, Pilates and spinning.
We did not know until the last day of the cruise that you can collect points for all the fitness activities you participate in and then get a prize at the end of the cruise. We would have kept track of our activities if they had better promoted this program.
ACTIVITIES / ENTERTAINMENT Personally, I have always thought that NCL does a great job with daily activities which is one of the reasons I wasn't too worried about being bored during the first two consecutive sea days. There were dancing classes, language classes, cooking classes and history lectures as well as bingo and other casino games that my grandma enjoyed. My mom and I went to the Second City lecture (they teach you how to do "improv" and you can participate as a volunteer which my mom and I both did) as well as the Italian language lesson.
The most enjoyable shows throughout the week included the Second City comedy group, the Newly Wed Game and the talent show. Second City was great - maybe not totally appropriate for kids, but absolutely hilarious and extremely entertaining. It's an improve comedy group with locations throughout the United States - they have a contract with NCL to provide a group of comedians for ship entertainment.
PORTS OF CALL / EXCURSIONS ACAPULCO (ship docked) Acapulco was much more urban than I expected (2.5 million people). We cancelled our ship-booked excursion to take an independent tour with some Cruise Critic members. For $30 each (price based on total number of people, and we had nine total), Rosie took us to many of the city's top attractions, most of which had few to no other tourists at them. I believe Rosie decides which activities to go to based on the traffic conditions and time allotted, but our tour included a stop at La Quebrada to watch the cliff divers' 1pm show. This was a very neat experience. Not only is the location beautiful but the divers are outstanding. The divers climb up the cliff and jump at different heights. There were two children (I'm guessing they were in training) that dove from the shorter heights and one diver from the very top of the cliff. Rosie told us the diver's only dive from the top of the cliff once or twice a week because it is so difficult on their bodies. My only complaint about the viewing area is that there are only a limited number of spaces where you will be able to see when the divers hit the water. I recommend either watching from the restaurant at the top of the hill or making your way down the stairs to the viewing area closest to the cliff (it fills up quickly). But just be aware - there are a lot of stairs at this attraction. The cost to see the divers was $3.50 each or around 30 pesos each. There are souvenirs available and a store at the top of the stairs for silver items, lots of jewelry, wood carvings and bathrooms.
Other stops included Casa Blanca Hotel, an abandoned hotel with arguably the best view of the bay, Los Flamingos Hotel with more outstanding views of the coast, Senor Frogs for lunch (not included in the price), the Chapel of Peace and ended the day at Rosie's parent's house. They do not speak English but Rosie helped to translate. It was a very interesting experience to see how they live, how their houses are designed and how they survive with their garden and chickens in their back yard. We made our way up to the roof of their house to see another beautiful sight, pink and orange clouds over the bay and our ship in the distance. I highly recommend learning some Spanish for this cruise. It will help you in the stores, in the streets and also grants you a little deserved respect from the locals.
Rosie also made a stop at the Hard Rock Cafe so I could run in and get a pin (I collect them). It was very nice of her to make that extra stop for me and we gave her an extra tip for that.
The whole tour lasted about six hours and was thoroughly enjoyable. I highly recommend Rosie for a tour of Acapulco.
ZIHUATENEJO For the rest of the cruise, we booked excursions through the ship. Usually, we like to book independent excursions through local tour companies, however, given it was our first Mexican Riviera cruise, we were unfamiliar with the local companies and didn't really know what the "must see" attractions were. We booked Rustic and Folkloric Countryside for $69 each. We boarded a bus (a very comfortable bus with plush seats and lots of room) and began our approximately 20 minute ride out of the area to the countryside. The first stop was a coconut plantation. We were able to watch a farmer open coconuts, carve out the "meat," and grind up the coconut flakes. There were some coconut products available for purchase including a coconut, honey and brown sugar candy bar that I highly recommend you purchase. I believe it was one dollar for two large pieces. The plantation also makes pita bread with coconut baked inside that tasted like a sweet sandwich. We were able to try this for free. The next stop was a tile plantation. The tour guide explained the process of making the clay roofing tiles as a local formed them by hand and laid them in the sun to dry. During this presentation, I walked over to a hut where a man was making plates and bricks out of the clay. He did not speak any English but was eager to show me what he was doing and allowed me to take pictures of him. He was also proud to show me the water source for the plantation which was a sad sight to see - a brown creek with bugs floating on top of the current. The man told me he was 82 years old and in great shape, so I'm amazed at how they are able to keep themselves healthy and survive on what they have. He also showed me some of the plants they have growing on the plantation including blue agave cactus (for tequila), aloe vera, loufa, lemongrass, basil and oregano. Everything smelled so wonderful.
The final stop for this excursion was a large outdoor restaurant on the beach. We were served fried Spanish mackerel and some local vegetables as well as a free drink (this meal was included in the excursion price). It was a big meal and everything tasked pretty good. We were then given about a half hour to explore the beach. It was a very large beach with some local families and many vendors selling jewelry. The water was clear, clean and very refreshing to wade in.
PUERTO VALLARTA We booked "Mexican Cooking & City Tour" for $45 each. This excursion started with a bus ride into the city. We made a few stops and participated in a short walking tour of the waterfront areas. We were given some time to visit the Lady of Guadeloupe church; however, there was a ceremony taking place so we did not spend too much time there.
After walking through the city, we were taken to Santo Tequila for our cooking lesson and tequila tasting. We were taught how to make salsa, guacamole, tostadas and tortillas. It was a lot of fun and I've been making guacamole at home ever since this trip. We were also given free drink of choice. After eating, we were shown the tequila process and invited to participate in a tequila tasting that was not only a surprise, but a fun event that included four different types of tequilas and a lesson in how to say a Mexican cheer. There is some time to purchase tequila after the tasting. The tour then took us to a shopping area for about a half hour. We asked the tour guide to drop my mother and I off downtown so we could walk over to the Hard Rock Cafe and then we took a cab ride back to the ship for about $6.
CABO SAN LUCAS We booked "Deluxe Coastal Cruise" for $59. I had a feeling that, even though whale watching excursions were not suppose to start until mid-December (to give the whales a chance to settle in their seasonal homes), that the huge amount of coastal cruises would try to seek out the whale families and sure enough, we came across one. My goal for this trip was to see whales and I used a roll and a half of film on them. We were able to get pretty close and watch them swim with Los Arcos and Lovers Beach in the background. The cruise included lots of drinks (beer and margaritas, although the margaritas are not what you'd expect back home - it was tequila, triple sec and orange juice), a history discussion by a crew member and lots of pretty scenery. I think $59 is a little on the expensive side for what we got but seeing the whales made it worth the trip.
My mom and I walked into town to see Cabo Wabo and the Hard Rock Cafe and then took a water taxi (for $10 roundtrip) to Lovers Beach to get some sun and do some snorkeling. WOW! This is the neatest beach I've ever been too! The scenery is amazing with huge rocky boulders jolting out of the sand in strange forms and gold sand - the snorkeling wasn't too bad either. You have to take a water taxi to reach the beach and you will have to jump out of the boat into the shallow water to get to the beach - however there are a couple local guys willing to carry you and your belongings as long as you tip a couple bucks. It is highly recommended that you do not swim on the Pacific side of the beach because the current is very strong, but I recommend at least walking over to that side to see the rock formations and take some great pictures.PUBLIC ROOMS The public rooms are very colorful and tastefully decorated. However, I got in the habit of tapping my fingernails against a lot of decorations throughout the ship and was disappointed to see that most of them were plastic, though they were made to look like concrete or marble. The ship was very clean and comfortable. The theater was very large and tiered well – so it was possible to see the whole stage from every seat. I enjoyed walking down the hallway outside the Steakhouse – it was painted like an outdoor sidewalk in Europe and with the sun rays coming through the windows, it didn’t feel like you were on a cruise ship.
The only room I didn’t like was the Carousel Bar – it was very tacky and I didn’t like the whole circus theme. We also enjoyed the Spinnaker Lounge where the Second City performed on the last night as well as the Newly Wed Game Show and the talent show – all were great. Even though we didn’t spend time in it, the Red Lion Pub was really neat. Usually the hang out for watching sports, it was like being in an old English pub. Gatsby’s was a nice bar to get a drink at while you were waiting for your dinner table. There was usually a singer or piano player here.
We also used the internet café every day to email our significant other back home – it was $50 for about 100 minutes (I think) and there never seemed to be anyone in that café to help with the computers so you’ll have to fend for yourself.
There was only one store for shopping but it had everything you would need including souvenirs, perfume, jewelry, clothing and all the cheap Bijoux Terner items
DISEMBARKATION This process took a long time. I’m not sure why some cruise lines make you go through customs on the ship and others make you go through it once you get off the ship. In any case, with NCL we were given colored luggage tags. We had to get new tags because we needed to get off the ship for an early flight. We had to be out of our rooms by around 8am, then we had to wait in a public room until our luggage tags were called – but this didn’t mean we could get off the ship. This meant we could go wait in line for customs. And it was a good thing we ended up getting in line for customs before our luggage tags were called because the line was SO long. We were in line for about an hour. Then we waited for our tags to be called in order to leave the ship.
IN SHORT I really enjoyed this itinerary. The Mexican Riviera was much more fun and exciting than I thought it was going to be. I was nervous that I would miss the clear blue waters and sandy beaches of the Caribbean, but the dramatic cliffs, mountains and traditional ways of these port cities made it a thoroughly enjoyable cruise. The cruise ships’ excursions were a lot of fun and the onboard entertainment was excellent. I look forward to going back to visit cities again. I would highly recommend the NCL Star’s for this trip, not for the food, but for the adventure, the scenery and the itinerary.
If you have any questions about my experience, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org