Considering a cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line? Especially if you're thinking about the Norwegian Star, this very lengthy review is for you. Hopefully, it will answer some of your questions and help you make an informed decision.
BOOKING AND EMBARKATION
Having never taken a cruise before, I was excited to see such low fares for Norwegian Cruise Line's 3-night "Pacific Coastal Cruise" from Los Angeles to Vancouver, essentially a repositioning maneuver to get their ship up north for the summer Alaska cruising season from its winter duty cruising the Mexican Riviera. Inside staterooms for $149 per person? It sounded good to me. I asked two of my family members if they'd like to come, and they agreed, and we decided to upgrade to the mini-suite (class AF and AG) with balcony. We figured it would not only be a treat for our first cruise, but it would give us more room and a bit of privacy (they're married, I'm single). We booked our cruise online and our total price, including taxes and fees, was roughly $265 per person. Although there were no ports of call scheduled during the voyage, we felt that the price was an exceptional value.
We were sailing on the Norwegian Star, a mammoth vessel built in 2001. The Star is 971 feet long with a 105-foot beam (width), and 14 decks. She is an amazing, beautiful ship. I was struck at its sheer size when we reached the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro. Embarkation was a very smooth, effortless affair. We had all already completed the Advance Guest Registration on the NCL website, and had been mailed our Welcome Packet with luggage tags, each printed with our individual name, stateroom number and location (forward, mid, or aft). After handing off our tagged luggage curbside (which was delivered promptly to our stateroom), we checked in at NCL's counters and each had a card issued to us (just like a credit card) which served as our identification, our method of "payment" while onboard, and our stateroom key. We proceeded through security and had our hands sprayed and sanitized (the first of many, many such sprayings while onboard), and boarded the Star on Deck 7 Mid.
After all the initial oohing and aahing at the Grand Atrium area, we took the elevators to our stateroom, which was number 11180, indicating suite 180 on deck 11. We were on the starboard side, aft. The first impression as we entered the cabin was, "Wow!" The mini-suite is about 230 sq. ft. and very tastefully designed and furnished. As you walk in, there is a short hallway with a shelf; fresh flowers and a bowl of fruit had been placed out for our arrival. The bathroom is on the left (in this particular stateroom) and is wonderful. As you enter, there is a nice-sized main area with sink, mirror, subdued lighting, towels, amenities (lotion, shower cap, shoe shine mitt, oatmeal soap). The sink is a good size with a nice, upscale faucet. The appropriate number of towels and glasses for our party of three had been placed in the racks. To the left of this area was the toilet room, separated by a sliding glass door. Again, everything was nice and very well-designed. To the right of the main area was the tub and shower. I was happy to discover that water pressure was outstanding. The plumbing fixture was European-style, with a pressure control knob on the left and a marked temperature control (in degrees Celsius) on the right. A small button must be depressed to turn the temperature knob past 38 degrees Celsius. A pushbutton dispenser with shampoo and soap is mounted on the wall, and the shower head is adjustable for height and also removable for handheld use. The shower/tub is contained behind a sliding glass door and a retractable clothesline rounds out the bathroom. Plenty of clothes and towel hooks are available as well.
NCL participates in the voluntary towel re-use program you see in many hotels these days. They stress that the gesture is strictly voluntary and ask that if you wish to use your towel more than once, simply hang it up; if not, leave it on the floor and it will be replaced.
Continuing down the short hallway to the main sleeping salon, a hairdryer is mounted to the wall, and there is a shelf and two large drawers for clothes, etc. Here you will also find power outlets, a UK-style 220v outlet and a polarized US-style 110v outlet. There is also a mirror and a comfortable padded stool. In the main sleeping area, two twin beds are present. Given the makeup of our party, the steward had already pulled the two beds together and fitted them with a pad to make a queen-sized bed. Pillows are excellent, fitted with damask covers, as is the duvet. The bed is firm and comfortable. Near the bed is the closet, complete with about a dozen wood hangers, shelves and an interior light. Above the closet is a row of "cubbies," where the extra pillows and life preservers are stored. Each life preserver identifies the cabin number and the designated meeting spot (called a muster station) for that cabin, should an emergency occur. As expected, the life preservers are excellent, fitted with an automatic light (activates when wet), a whistle, and an integrated headrest to prevent rolling or facial submersion if unconscious. Prior to leaving port, there is a mandatory safety and evacuation drill held at each of the muster stations. Lifeboats are plentiful and stocked with food rations, fresh water, and capacity for 150 people each.
Back to the stateroom, beyond the sleeping area, there is a thick, heavy curtain that can be drawn to separate the bedroom area from the sitting area. In the sitting area is a comfortable sofa, a table, and a built-in center that contains the minibar/fridge, safe, color TV, coffee machine and its accoutrements, and a small counter area. Three 220v outlets are here: one UK-style, and two European-style (two pins). One of the Euro-style outlets is taken by the coffee machine. There is also storage space on top of this center. Minibar prices are high, but no more so than you would expect to find in most land-based hotels (a small can of Pringles is $1.50, a 50mL bottle of liquor is about $6.00, etc.); the ice bucket and glasses are here as well, and the steward refills the ice bucket 2-3 times a day, or upon request. The sofa bottom (seating area) slides out on rails, then the seatback part folds down easily, where it is covered with a thick pad and sheet set for a full-size bed. The cabin steward takes care of this every evening when the turndown service is performed, and returns it to its sofa position in the morning. Chocolate mints are placed on every pillow.
The room was fantastic on its own, but was made much better by the balcony. Behind a thick, light-blocking curtain, a full sliding glass door (on smooth-sliding rollers, not just in a track) grants access to the large balcony (about 55 sq. ft.) with two comfortable deck chairs and a table. A dome light provides lighting for night use. The panel beneath the railing is a single sheet of tempered glass, so the view is completely unobstructed. We loved the balcony and used it quite a lot, despite the cool temperatures as we sailed north along the Pacific Coast.
So we were extremely happy with the stateroom, but what about the rest of the ship? The first place we went was Deck 12, one of the main common-area decks aboard the Star. A festive, wonderful aura prevailed as newly boarded passengers socialized and soaked up the Southern California sunshine and ate a delicious BBQ buffet… live music, great food (chicken, brats, sausages, potatoes, pasta salads, etc.), and a wonderful atmosphere. It was a great way to start the cruise, and we were still about an hour away from departing! We left the docks about 30 minutes later than our scheduled 6:00 p.m. departure time and set out to sea under cloudless skies. The highlight was seeing a number of green buoys in the ocean, each completely covered with California sea lions soaking up the last of the day's sunshine. Several sea lions bobbed around in the water around the buoys, clearly wanting to get on the platform the instant a space opened up.
The restaurants on the Norwegian Star are very good. NCL has "Freestyle Cruising," so there are no set dinner times, nor any specific dress codes (most restaurants, however, do enforce a "resort casual" policy - nice jeans are acceptable, as is business casual attire). You're welcome to dress as much up or down as you like, and for my part, I really enjoyed this approach. I've not cruised before where you have set dinner times and a formal night and all, so I don't have a basis for comparison. I talked to a number of other passengers during the cruise, though, and got the very distinct impression that while most people like the Freestyle Cruising approach, not all do, and it seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. If you eat in the main dining venues, you always have the option of sharing a table with other passengers or having your own table for your dining party. I really liked having this option, because I enjoy meeting new people, but sometimes, you don't feel like being overly social, so it's really great to be able to choose.
The two main dining venues, no reservations taken, are Versailles and Aqua. Versailles is typically open for all three meals; Aqua is a bit smaller and open only for dinner. We really liked the décor and ambiance of both dining rooms. The food is excellent and is served in four-course fashion (appetizer, soup/salad, entrée, and dessert). Service is efficient and gracious, and in a dining room that seats nearly 500 (Versailles), astoundingly well-choreographed. We ate three meals in Versailles (breakfast and two lunches) and were pleased every time.
The buffet is quite good and handled the crowds very well. They have a Caesar salad station that turned out the best Caesar salads I had on the ship (even better than the specialty restaurants). There was a good assortment of salads, pastas, breads, hot foods, desserts, etc. There's also a 24-hour restaurant called Blue Lagoon whose ambiance leaves a LOT to be desired, but for a quick bite to eat at midnight, it's pretty good. The fish and chips are excellent. Room service is available 24 hours a day, as well (no charge) and offers a decent selection of fruit, sandwiches, pizza, and such.
One thing I learned rapidly about cruises, especially those with no ports of call, is that for the specialty restaurants, it's very helpful to make reservations as soon as possible because they fill up fast. I tried making reservations at Cagney's Steakhouse several hours beforehand the first night. No availability. I asked about the next night, but it was full then, too. I tried La Trattoria with the same results. Same for Le Bistro. However, to the astounding credit of NCL crew, they noted my stateroom number on the phone when I called (without me even asking), and as soon as space opened up (perhaps a cancellation) for Cagney's, they called me and asked if we still wanted a table. Very nice! And the hostess at Cagney's knew that we were trying to eat at La Trattoria as well, and she was friends with the hostess there, so she got us a table there at 6:00 the following night. I was amazed at this level of service.
Cagney's is one of the restaurants that carries an additional cover charge. At $20 per person, it's also the most expensive supplementary charge onboard. Their wine list was quite good, and prices were generally comparable to those in a land-based restaurant (I found a nice Beaujolais for $28). The menu included appetizers such as crab cakes, jumbo shrimp cocktail, and oysters Rockefeller. We had them all at our table and they were all outstanding. The next course is soup and/or salad, with such offerings as lobster bisque, clam chowder, Caesar salad prepared tableside, and a traditional iceberg wedge salad. I had the lobster bisque, which was pretty good, and the Caesar salad, which was very good, but not prepared tableside as advertised in the menu. The entrées were classic steakhouse selections: veal chop, double-cut lamb chops, NY strip steak, rib eye, T-bone, and of course prime rib and filet mignon. A nice array of sides are also available, and you can get as many as you like. Cagney's also offers three special dishes: a 1.5-pound whole lobster, a surf and turf dish with lobster and filet mignon, and a 24-ounce Porterhouse. These special dishes cost $10 in addition to the $20 cover charge for a total of $30. I had the 8-ounce filet and it was very good, although not the best filet I've ever had. The selection of desserts was excellent and was a superb finish to a fine meal in a splendid old-school steakhouse atmosphere. All in all, I would definitely recommend Cagney's, particularly if you can get a 9 p.m. reservation and pay the half-priced cover charge. But even at full price, it's worth it.
La Trattoria, while also a specialty restaurant, has no cover charge. The atmosphere, while not as upscale as Cagney's or Le Bistro, was suitably Italian, and certainly pleasant enough with great floor-to-ceiling windows along one side for a nice view of the ocean and sunset. Again, it's a minimum of four courses… up to six if you're a complete glutton (appetizer, soup/salad, pasta, pizza, entrée, and dessert). No thanks! I definitely recommend this restaurant since it's the only true specialty dining room without a supplementary charge. From the appetizers (we had carpaccio, calamari, and prosciutto and melon) to the desserts (tiramisu for me... what else?), the food here was terrific, and I'd recommend this place without hesitation. Again, make your reservations as soon as possible because they fill up fast.
ENTERTAINMENT AND SHOPPING
The Stardust Theatre, which seats about 1,000 in three levels, had a separate show on each of the nights at sea. The first night was basically an amalgam of the upcoming shows and had one performance. The second night was a musical performance featuring the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber. It was about an hour long and pretty good. Certainly not top-end Broadway caliber, but very entertaining. There were two showtimes (7:30 and 9:30); we went to the early show, then had dinner at Cagney's. The final night at sea also had the same two showtimes (we went to the later show) and featured a Second City troupe performance, mostly sketch and improvisational comedy. Following the show, which was the last of the cruise, a large contingent of the ship's crew, including the captain and some of the senior officers, came out to thank and meet the passengers. I found the crew, with few exceptions, to be gracious and accommodating. Some 55 countries are represented by the vast international crew; the majority seemed to be Filipino. All in all, I was definitely pleased with the service onboard.
We also went to a stand-up comedy routine in the very nice Spinnaker Lounge. The guy's routine was mostly one-liners, altogether family-friendly, and occasionally even funny, but not usually. There was also plenty of excellent live music at the various venues throughout the ship, my favorite of which was a woman who played in the nicer lounges with just her guitar. I can't remember her name, but she had a really nice singer-songwriter vibe (although she was covering classics) and was very easy to listen to.
Deck 12 has the main pool with a couple of twisty water slides and four freshwater jacuzzis, as well. The water in the pool is seawater, filled once the ship sets out, and is heated to about 84°. I stuck my hand in a jacuzzi and it felt only slightly warmer, maybe 90-95°. Certainly not the 102-104° you might be used to in a hot tub. The jacuzzis had some intermittent use during the cruise, but I never saw anyone in the pool. Must have had something to do with the 50° air temperature. :) However, the pool deck was always clean and seemed to be well laid-out. I can only imagine what it would be like on a warm-weather cruise!
The casino on the Star is on the small side (at least compared with a land-based casino), but nice. There were three blackjack tables open (more on this later), a craps table with 3x 4x 5x odds, roulette, a few specialty games (Let It Ride, Caribbean Stud Poker, Three Card Poker, and Pai Gow Poker). There is also an area for poker games, most notably (of course) Texas Hold 'Em. There are a fair number of slot machines and video poker machines, although I ignored those. There is a casino bar, a casino services counter, and a cashier cage. An ATM is available, naturally, but levies a staggering $5.50 fee for withdrawals, so if your bank doesn't cover your foreign ATM withdrawal fees, it's best to bring cash or arrange something with the casino, because that's a really steep fee.
If you're into blackjack, the tables here offer very favorable rules for the player with a few notable exceptions. Blackjacks are paid at the proper 3:2, not the abhorrent 6:5 nonsense so pervasive in Vegas these days. There was one $5 minimum table, and two $10 minimum tables. The two tables in the front had six-deck continuous shuffle machines, which certainly don't favor the player, but the table in back ($10 minimum) has an eight-deck shoe with deep penetration. The rules definitely favor the player: double on any two cards, double after splitting, splitting up to three times, and dealer stands on soft 17. NCL also has a player's club called Seabucks which allows players to accumulate points and onboard credits based on their level of play. I didn't spend a lot of time in the casino, perhaps two hours total, but enjoyed it both times I was there.
There is a duty-free shop and a rather large shopping venue (unimaginatively named "Galleria") which has a wide assortment of cheap tourist crap, as well as toiletries, sundries, and some overpriced clothes. I milled around in there a couple of times, and that was enough for me, but I'm not much of a shopper. There is also a fragrance shop, a shore excursions shop, and during the days, various vendors (jewelry, art, etc.) would ply their wares in the main atrium. There is also a photo shop where prints of candid and posed moments snapped by the ship's photographers are displayed for consideration, commentary, and, NCL hopes, purchase.
DISEMBARKING AND CONCLUSION
The debarkation was a bit of a fiasco, of course, but no more or less so than I would expect on any vessel trying to disgorge 2,000 people through three customs counters. The express debarkation was not anything of the sort and I'm glad we didn't elect to use this after seeing the incredible lines to "just walk off the ship." We had a nice, leisurely breakfast after we were moored, and finally wandered off the ship according to our color group (determined by stateroom location) at about 9:45 a.m. NCL is good about reminding you that you're still on vacation that final morning and they're not in any big rush to get you off the ship, so take your time, have a nice meal, enjoy yourself, etc. There are even a few morning activities planned, so it's quite nice to have that time. We placed our luggage outside our door the previous night at about midnight, so we had to think about what we'd wear and what we'd need upon awaking. It worked fine.
All in all, this was a marvelous introduction to cruising for me. There are only a few things that I consider drawbacks… one is that it seems odd to me that soft drinks are considered some kind of premium beverage. I don't personally drink much pop anyway, so I was fine with the free drinks (water, tea, coffee, and milk), but for people who like their Cokes and Sprites, I would think $1.50+15% every time would add up in a hurry, particularly on a longer cruise. Alcoholic beverages were expensive, but not obscenely so (about what you'd pay in a bar on land). As an example, a six-pack of premium imported beer in a helmet full of ice out on Deck 12 was about $22+15%. So with tip, you're paying a bit over $4 per beer, which isn't awful, but certainly isn't a bargain. Spa services are about as expensive as you'd expect, and some of the things like wine tastings, martini tastings, etc., carried nominal fees (usually $10-15). Any sort of Internet access was incredibly expensive, but on a ship, I suppose that's not entirely out of the ordinary. WiFi access is available as well, but it's 75¢ per minute. I didn't find much on the ship that I felt was really overpriced (beyond soft drinks and Internet access), nor did I feel I was being pushed or manipulated to buy something at every turn.
Gratuities are added to your shipboard account automatically at $10 per person, per day. I personally liked this, because it just freed me up to not have to think about signing for tips at restaurants or leaving tips in envelopes for stewards, etc. Some people might not like this method, and that's understandable. I did. My understanding is that you can adjust this amount with a quick word at the reception desk. Your statement is delivered to your stateroom on the final night at sea, while you sleep. I liked that each person in a common stateroom could have a separate shipboard account, or two people could be combined on one account, etc. However we wanted to play it, NCL accommodated us with ease.
I'm a big fan of "Freestyle Cruising" and will definitely look to NCL for my next cruise. I'd like to try another line at some point for the sake of comparison, but this was a very good experience, and I'd recommend NCL to anyone, especially when you find a great deal like we did.