My wife and I planned an eight-day getaway from Vancouver to Los Angeles and back, with the southbound portion on Amtrak, two frantic days in LA, and the return trip on the Norwegian Star. I have been wanting to do this rail/sea excursion for decades, and this year the opportunity finally arose. The primary goal of the vacation was to relax and forget the real world back at home. Other goals were to try out rail travel and cruising with a minimal investment.
I think that in planning a vacation, the first step should be to decide what your needs, desires and expectations are. Is your goal to be pampered at every turn? Would your vacation be spoiled if you had to wait in line for thirty minutes? Are you okay with a decent bed, or do you require a deep and luxurious mattress? Will you be disappointed if your room attendant does not form your bath towel into an animal shape while you are at dinner? Does your enjoyment of a room turn on the color choices in the decor? Do you require gourmet food to have a good meal, or will a burger and beer be okay from time to time? I think that a mistake that many people who post reviews (including me) have made, is over analyzing the experience. Enjoy the ride instead of cataloguing all of the little details.
Although this was my first cruise, I am sure that none of these cruise ships is bad, as long as your expectations are appropriate for the ship. We had a wonderful trip, and our expectations were met or exceeded at almost every turn. There were a few glitches that have me rating the experience at four out of five, but none of these spoiled the cruise.
PRIOR TO DEPARTURE
If you have not travelled on Amtrak, I have two words of advice: Sleeper Car. Sitting in coach is a hit-or-miss deal, but you can always close the door of your sleeper compartment and keep the noise of your neighbors at bay. And your neighbors generally have more money than those in coach, which usually makes them more pleasant neighbors. That said, the loudest and most obnoxious schmuck on the train was a businessman who owns several properties talking on a cell phone in the observation car.
RMS Queen Mary
We spent our last night in SoCal aboard the RMS Queen Mary. I had been warned that I would be disappointed, but was thrilled with our king-sized outside stateroom with portholes facing across the harbour to the city of Long Beach. The bathroom was, admittedly very dated, with chipped glazing on the bathtub and some mould in the corners. The tub was huge and filled in seconds. The service was courteous and helpful, and the breakfast that we bought was fine. The self-guided tour that is included with the room rate was fascinating, and we would have spent hours doing it if we had the time. Try different approaches to get the best room rate - travel agent, the hotel's web site and the hotel's reservations phone line. Make sure to look at the special packages online - the web site's navigation is tricky, so poke around.
There is a free shuttle bus from the Queen Mary around the touristy bits of Long Beach that departs every 15 minutes. Los Angeles has a commuter rail system called the Metro, and it connects with the free shuttle. You might not want to take the Blue Line from Long Beach to downtown LA at night if you feel uncomfortable rubbing shoulders with people who live in rough districts. And you need to leave LA by 10:30 pm if you want to get the last shuttle bus back to the Queen Mary from the Blue Line terminus. Otherwise the cab fare is about eight bucks from the terminus to the old liner.
But you wanted to know about the Norwegian Star. Most of what you have read is true: Embarkation at Los Angeles is relatively painless if you have your documentation ready. The rooms are brightly decorated, smallish, and with little storage space. You definitely want a balcony unless you are sure that you will spend very little time in the cabin. The dining is okay at the buffet, Blue Lagoon and The Grill, and good-to-excellent in the dining rooms. The service in the restaurants and bars ranges from okay to very good, depending on the person, rather than the venue. You don't need to eat in the premium restaurants to have a good meal. You should book tomorrow's dinner time as soon as you wake up or be willing to be flexible at dinner time. The entertainment venues are all very nice, and the acts range from okay to very good. Drink prices are high, and soft drinks are not included with meals. Debarkation can be a real zoo, so patience is important and you won't want a tight connection schedule. All in all, you can have an amazingly good time on this ship.
Embarkation was fairly simple and quick. Boarding started at noon, and we arrived at the terminal about 1:30. I didn't time it, but it seemed about forty minutes to get through all the lines. Make sure to print your boarding pass from the eDocs section of the NCL web site before you leave home. And, you won't get aboard without a passport or other photo id and proof of citizenship. Even if you are only dreaming about a future cruise, get your passport now. You will need it in the future, so get it now.
We had a balcony stateroom. I will never cruise without a balcony, now that I have tried it. Other reviewers noted a lot of noise from Deck 12 in cabins on Deck 11, so we booked a cabin on Deck 10. Noise was rarely a problem, and we never heard the people in the cabin above us. We chose the port side to get the afternoon sun as we cruised northward. We chose a midship stateroom to minimize the sensation of the ship pitching. The worst sensation of pitching on the ship (and it was mild) was towards the bow.
The cabin was not large, but we were not cramped. The mini-suites are only slightly bigger - the only reason I can see to booking one of them is to get off the ship early. Ee had to work to get all our baggage stored, but we managed. One of the storage closet doors was dangling on 1.5 hinges - we reported it to the room steward, but it was not repaired during our trip.
The sliding door to the balcony is heavy and it can get some momentum. Use the handle every time and you will avoid getting your fingers crushed when you open the door. It hurt for a few minutes, but no real damage. On the balcony you can hear your neighbors on their balconies. Also, you can see them reflected in the guardrail glass if both they and you are sitting. Some people bring masking tape to cover keyholes in the partitions between balconies.
It was too cold and windy to sit on the balcony on the first sea day, but the second was very calm, and, wearing light jackets, we read out there. Bliss. I was impressed with how little wind there was on the balcony - almost none, when the ship was moving and the sea was calm. When the wind was blowing across the ship, there was a noticeably breeze on the balcony that might actually be refreshing on a warmer day.
The thermostat in the cabin seemed to work. I turned the heat up and left the balcony door open at night. There is a sign in the room noting that you are supposed to leave the balcony door shut, but I disregarded it. I like fresh air. From the standpoint of energy conservation and carbon-footprint reduction, you should leave that door closed, though.
On the last night, a pilot arrived by boat. (Pilots are sea captains who have a lot of experience in local waters, and who help the ship's own captain to navigate in tricky waters.) At 2:20 am, the boat roared off and waking me suddenly. I jumped from the bed, disoriented and momentarily frightened. It took a good while to get back to sleep. If your balcony is amidships, pay attention to any announcements that the captain makes about taking on a pilot at night - you might want to close that door.
I liked the bright, nautically themed textiles in the cabin. The bed was okay, although the "joint" between the mattresses was distracting. We are used to a lot of blankets, but the supplied blanket is thin. On the last night we asked for an extra blanket, and were provided with two woollen blankets that were no more than a yard squared. I am not sure what the point of that was.
My wife's arthritis gives her some trouble with dexterity. This is a particular problem with round, slippery knobs. Door handles with lever arms are easy for her to use, and the door to our suite and bathroom have good handles. The knobs in the shower to control water flow are round, slippery, and difficult for her to manage. The temperature control knob clicks into a safe warm position, and you need to depress a button while turning the knob to get hotter water. This was a real challenge for her.
Our ice bucket was filled every morning. The room was always acceptably clean. One evening we found a rabbit formed from towels on the bed. To be honest, turn-down service is a new experience for me, and not one that makes me overly comfortable. I am capable of pulling out blankets to get into bed. I wondered if the point was to make sure that the bedspread was removed so that we would not get it dirty.
The tiny television flickered so much that it was unwatchable. That didn't bother me; I can watch TV at home.
It seems that the term "Free-Style Cruising" just refers to dining. Cruising, then, seems to be the same as dining. I guess that we spent about three hours a day at one dining table or another. We had dinners in Aqua, Endless Summer and Versailles, in that order. We had called at 10:00 am on day 2 for a seating at La Trattoria on day 3, but it was already booked up. But we had no appreciable wait for either Aqua or Versailles when we arrived around 6:30.
The waiter at Aqua was overly obsequious - calling my wife "milady," trying to sell us bottled water, and trying to get us to buy a bottle of wine instead of two glasses. His attitude put me off, but he was the only crew member that I met who wasn't good or excellent. The meal was okay - roast leg of lamb for me and mahi mahi for my wife. Really good desserts.
I liked the service at Endless Summer. Prompt, polite and reserved. I also liked the food. My wife's tostada salad had more meat on it than the beef entree I would have the next night at Versailles. She enjoyed her quesadilla. I had pork ribs that were good, but not fall-off-the-bone tender. It is hard to eat ribs with a knife and fork, and no fingerbowl was provided. The desserts were excellent. The waiter lost our payment card at some stage during the meal. Without our knowing it, he cancelled both of our cards, and at the end of the meal he brought us new ones and explained what had happened.
Dinner at Versailles was okay, but I found our waitress to be unrefined. Not rude, maybe not even impolite, but unfamiliar with Western dining customs. For instance, she expected us to order our dessert at the beginning of the meal. This did not bother us, but I found her mannerisms odd. I had English cut strip loin with Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes. I understand that English cut means thinly sliced roast beef, but I was surprised at how small the single slice of strip loin was. The three slices of potato were also meagre. The Yorkshire pud was enormous and not bad. I rarely order an appetizer, but wished that I had on this occasion - I was still hungry. As always, the dessert was excellent. Later in the evening, I filled the void at Blue Lagoon.
A couple of times we had wings, potato skins or chicken strips at Blue Lagoon. We had to hover until somebody got up and then snagged the seat. Then we had to wait while the harried wait-staff failed to notice us. That place was just plain understaffed, but the crew did their best. The food was okay; the environment was noisy.
On the afternoon before we sailed, I had a hamburger at The Grill: dry bun and luke-warm fries.
We had our first breakfast at the buffet. If you like a big breakfast, this is the way to go. In fact, we were so full that we skipped lunch. But we had the rest of our breakfasts at Versailles because of the more interesting and refined menu. Both times, I was glad of the nicer food, but was still hungry when I left.
We tried lunch at the buffet once. What I did not realize is that The Market Cafe has several buffets down the starboard side. Keep walking until you find something that you like. Bottom line: if you are hungry and the buffet is open, you can find something to eat. The environment will be noisy and the food won't be special, but you can eat.
The dining rooms were the only places I had to be in the vicinity of children. Without exception, the parents had their kids very well-behaved. I complimented a couple of dads and moms for their children's behavior.
My big beef with eating on NCL is that soft drinks bloody-well ought to be included with meals at no extra charge. Coke is cheaper than milk, but I could have all the milk I wanted. Coke I had to pay extra for. Iced tea is free at Blue Lagoon, so that is what I drank there, and I had water with the meals in the dining rooms.
I wanted chocolate so I went to the gift-shop and bought a Cadbury almond bar. It was old and had been allowed to get hot. The chocolate was tough, tasteless, and had lost its gloss. Bleah.
Every purchase apparently gives you a raffle ticket. You have to be there at 5:00 pm on the last day. The purpose is to get a few hundred people standing around to make impulse purchases. The prize basket seemed pretty good, but it was a waste of about 30 minutes waiting in vain hope.
The gift shop features ammolite jewelry. Look it up on Wikipedia; it is interesting stuff. If it interests you, research prices before you go. I have no idea if the ship-board prices are reasonable.
I am a trivia buff. When you board, you will be given a daily schedule. Look for the progressive trivia game. It is a total-points competition that has one session per day throughout the cruise. You don't want to miss the first session if you want to win a coveted t-shirt, beach ball or deck of NCL cards at the end of the cruise. There are more trivia games each day with equally exciting prizes.
Check that schedule they give you every day for shows in the big theatre. It is a very impressive room, but the seats on the right and left mezzanines have impaired sightlines. The shows were good. Even better was the Chinese acrobat show in the big forward lounge - amazing. That schedule also tells you when the various musical acts are performing at the various locations. It is good to eat at Endless Summer when a trio is performing in the atrium bar (the name of which escapes me). Watching the lounge acts is pretty relaxing.
Cruise Critic Get-Togethers
It is possible that you found this review through a Google search, and are unaware that CruiseCritic.com has extensive forums. If you register, you can find forums for "Roll Calls." This way you can find people online who you can later meet on the ship. That is how we came to meet SakeDad, badell, and about a dozen other nice people. We gathered on Deck 14 at the outdoor Bier Garten bar with this crowd for sailaway, and met again on the first full sea-day at a small NCL reception for us. If you are trying to meet up in a public area, it is a good idea for everybody to wear some identifying mark - but one that would not make people feel conspicuous. Maybe a blue ribbon or a happy face button?
On the last evening, visit the service desk in the atrium and ask for you bill to that point. Normally your bill gets slipped under your door while you sleep during the last night. There were some anomalies on mine that occurred when the payment card went missing at Endless Summer. If you wait until the last morning, you might have to stand in line for thirty minutes or more with everybody else who is settling up.
Debarkation was a mess. The cruise director repeatedly encouraged everybody to use Express Debarkation. You fill out a simple form and drop it in a box the morning before your arrival. You put a sticker on your payment card. When you arrive in port, you haul your own luggage off the ship to Customs. All well and good, but it seemed that more than half the passengers on the ship had decided to do that. The line-up was half the length of the ship by the time the cruise director made his first announcement inviting us to line up to leave. I only saw one crew member directing traffic, and that was unacceptable. That being said, with six Border Services officers checking us through, the actual debarkation process only took about 30 minutes from the time we joined the line. I would recommend lining up thirty minutes before the announced beginning of Express Debarkation.
I had fun; my wife had fun. The food was good to very good; the entertainment was good; and the cabin was very good. The debarkation was poor. We were very relaxed and got our minds off our jobs for a while. Our ship-board charges were only $150. It was a great vacation. That being said, we won't be rushing to cruise again next year. Maybe in a few years we will take a higher-end Holland America or Celebrity cruise.
Remember: You'll have more fun if you don't over analyze.