Let me preface this review by giving you a little background on me. We are avid cruisers, having been on over 20 cruises to date. We have experienced most all cruise lines (except MSC and Princess), and are frequent cruisers with NCL. We love their "freestyle" concept. You must understand though, when you sail NCL, be prepared for extra charges. (Especially for specialty dining) We also have become "picky" cruisers, and notice details that first timers or occasional cruisers may not notice. So, keep these things as you read this review.
We flew into LAX a day early and used Golden West Transportation for our transfer from the airport to the hotel in San Pedro. (75.00 plus gratuity) We stayed at the Crown Plaza which was secured with a 70.00 price line bid. The hotel was nice, and served its purpose. It's close to the fish market at the pier, and there are many dining options around. In my opinion, San Pedro is kind of run down, but they seem to be making attempts at revitalization. We took the advice of the concierge, and hired a private SUV for a tour of LA, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills on the morning of the cruise. The cost was 300 including gratuities for four hours. We had a great time, and it was worth it. (I wouldn't recommend this on a weekday as I would imagine the traffic would be horrible)
We arrived at the pier at about 1pm, and were given a number. We had to wait about 30 mins or so before being allowed to join the line for check-in. Kind of a hassle, but we dealt with it. Another 20 mins, and we were on board, and in our cabin. The crew was waiting with champagne, but that's it. No assistance in locating your cabin, which I found tacky.
We had two adjoining balcony cabins booked on Dec 9, Aft. (With an interior connecting door for the kids room) We asked the steward to open the interior door, and the balcony partition. My initial observation of the rooms were that they were less than clean. Lots of dust, and the balconies were just dirty. The glass walls were filthy, and the patio furniture was just as dirty. The staterooms were well appointed, and I liked the larger bathrooms. The 2.0 bedding was very comfortable. The TV channel selections and movies were fine. CNN (unfortunately not FOX NEWS) was always available (to watch the debate). A couple of movie channels, and TNT movies. What was interesting was that the first two days, TNT played back to back TITANIC and POSEIDEN. Pretty interesting for cruising. I would imagine some may be freaked out by that. We also had the steward clean out the mini bars and we used them to store sodas, etc
SHIP OVERALL IMPRESSION
We've cruised on the SUN a couple of times, and it is very different in layout from this ship. This ship is just unusual in its layout. Lots of "You cant get there from here" It you don't go the casino, you'll never see it. Same with other areas of the ship. I found that the ship's common areas are worn and in some cases just filthy. Rugs and flooring in some areas (like the Market Cafe) were atrocious. More about the Market Cafe later. I particularly liked the Stardust show room though. It consists of three levels instead of the usual two. Plenty of seating with loads of good viewing. I also liked the Red Lion pub and some of the other common areas. The dEcor is nice and not too loud.
I'm not sure what is going on, but the crew overall seemed unhappy. Service in most areas was mediocre at best. This is something that needs to be addressed by NCL, because many of the passengers were noticing this.
Main Dining rooms - Versailles and Aqua - Typical cruise fare. My thoughts are that the food here is just okay. Not great, but not bad either. The service is slow, and at peak times, you have to wait in line to be seated.
Ginza/Sushi - Fantastic. A 15.00 cover charge, but well worth it. The Sushi was very fresh, and my wife enjoyed the lamb dish. The sushi/sashimi was all you can eat, and many different selections. Great desert as well in the mochi ice cream balls
Market Cafe - Other reviews have described this as school cafeteria style. In my opinion, this is worse than some school cafeterias. Breakfast here is especially bad. There was always the scent of dirty rags and garbage, the floors were slimy and gross, and this place was overall not inviting. Terrible, Terrible, Terrible!
Blue Lagoon - This was my favorite place to get fast food/Comfort Food. Great hot wings, burgers, and wonderful fish and chips. The service here was fast, and things seemed clean. It was nice to be served here rather than a buffet as well.
Soho Room - Another specialty dining option at 15.00 pp cover. The food was wonderful, but the service very slow. Well worth the cover charge though. Incidentally, with this cruise, it wasn't necessary to have a reservation in most of the specialty restaurants. We walked in on most nights, even at 6pm or 830 pm
Cagney's Steakhouse - Great steaks and chops. Wonderful presentation, and the service was better than most. A 20.00 cover charge. (Also, kids 12 and under pay 50% of the cover charge)
Le Bistro - Great food. Again, well worth the cover charge.
Room Service - We love to order room service (the kids do anyway), and the new 2.0 room service menu is great. Plenty of variety, and time was always under 30 mins.
Jean Ann Ryan Company - The usual NCL entertainment. Most performers in the group were very talented, some not so much. Always enjoyable though. These kids work hard, and always deliver. The final performance of Cirque Pacific was outstanding!
Murray the Magician - This kid was great! We really enjoyed his performance, and hope to see him again sometime.
Cruise Director - Paul Baya - We've been with him on another cruise, although I can't remember which one. Either the Norway or the Sun. He was okay. Not the best we've had, but not the worst either.
Cabo - We booked the Swim with the Dolphins tour through the cruise line. This was a first for us, and very expensive at 179 pp. It was a great time, and we all greatly enjoyed the experience. My only complaint is that they don't allow spectators to take pictures, because they have a photographer taking pictures. They charge 25.00 per print for their pictures. This is absurd considering what they charge for the tour. We didn't do anything else because the weather was uncomfortably hot and humid.
Mazatlan - We pre booked with Randi at Randis Happy Horses .com. Randi is a wonderful American woman who has lived in Mazatlan for nearly 20 years. She seems to be well respected among the locals, and met us at the pier. From there she accompanied us to the Stone Island ferry area where we took a small boat to Stone Island, then another truck ride to the horses. We definitely got to see rural Mexico like most tourists don't get to see. The five of us were introduced to our horses, and off we went (total in the group was six) After a brief ride through the coconut plantation, we got to the beach where we rode 30 mins up the beach, stopped for some photos, then 30 mins back to Victor's restaurant for some drinks, chips and Salsa. The ride was great, and there were plenty of opportunities to run, gallop, and play in the water. The staff was very attentive to the kids to insure they were safe and comfortable.
Puerto Vallarta - We pre-booked a zip line tour with Los Veranos Canopy Tours on the internet in advance. All I can say is WOW!. This was the highlight of the trip. What an awesome time, and we always felt safe and well cared for. My wife and youngest son went along but didn't go on the zip lines (and regretted it) My son got attacked by some over zealous Marmosets in the "petting zoo", but that's another story. Quite dramatic. This is one for the memory books. You won't be disappointed with this tour.
DEBARKATION - This was a drag. We opted for the express dis embarkation, and the line to get in the Spinnaker lounge to see the Immigration officer was horrendous. Then, they wanted everyone to use a single bank of elevators to go down to the gangway. Again, very poor planning on NCL's part.
SUMMARY - Overall, we had a good time. I wouldn't cruise on the STAR again though. My opinion of NCL has worsened over the last two cruises with them. It seems like only the food in the specialty restaurants is good. I like the freestyle concept though. Looking forward to trying Princess someday, as that is the one line yet to try.
The weather coming back from PV was good, although we were out running Hurricane Norbert, and the seas were rough. All in all, we had a great time, mainly because of the shore excursions we planned for.
In my opinion, I cannot recommend the STAR though. I feel like the ship is showing its age, and is in need of major refurbishment. The crew seemed unhappy, and I still don't know why.
Spending a few days in San Diego before going home....SeaWorld, the Zoo, etc. You have to try the Seal Tour (Amphib vehicle tour). We loved it. By the way, we rented a car from Enterprise (which is right next door to the Crown Plaza). The hotel shuttle took us back from the ship.