First, let me say thank you to all who sponsor and all who have participated in this Review website. As newcomers, we found it an extremely helpful resource in planning our trip. I come now to see what others thought of the cruise we just finished with NCL's Star to Alaska.
Next, let me say that we thoroughly enjoyed the cruise, NCL, and the Star. Perhaps, we are somewhat naive, not having cruised previously. But, we've talked with friends and did a fair amount of research before making our decision, listened to both the good and the bad, and (I think) understood that there would be aspects of the adventure that we might not enjoy. Still, we found it a great experience, and are somewhat surprised by a few of the more negative comments we've seen recently posted. Like all else in life, I've come to appreciate that what you get out of a venture depends upon what you put into it.
...However, there are definitely things that I would not do again, and things (cautions, if you will) that I think should be shared with other first time cruisers. So many such things that I think it worth registering and sharing my thoughts here for what they are worth. So, here goes. In no particular order of priority.
1. Were I doing it again, I would probably not use a Travel Agent. I've always been somewhat of a DIY guy and would have put this trip together by myself were it not for my wife, whose specific wishes had to be taken into account. The information and communications received at various points from the TA and from NCL were not totally consistent, and I wound up with the impression that despite the recommendation from others that she knew her stuff the TA really didn't seem too familiar with NCL ... even though she was the one who recommended NCL rather than HAL or Princess. And, I got the impression that NCL was rather reluctant to speak about some aspects of the package for fear of stepping on the TA's toes. For example, each seemed to think that our air arrangements to Seattle were the other's responsibility. I KNOW that I could have and would have done things differently (and better) had I booked the air myself.
2. We were somewhat shocked by the extent of salesmanship that we witnessed aboard NCL. We were cautioned to expect it, but never realized how much it could detract from the enjoyment of the cruise, if you don't make a concerted effort to tune it out. ...And, you CAN ignore it and avoid it! Don't go to the "cruise consultant"'s shopping info sessions. The effort is more than an offer of help find reliable bargains in port cities; it is a luring of shoppers with promises of free gemstones, umbrellas, rain parkas, and charm bracelets if you visit designated jewelry stores when you arrive in port. Suffice it to say, we saw lines of fellow passengers in those jewelry stores, but not one person coming back to ship with an umbrella, gemstone, or other keepsake of anything above CrackerJack box value. Don't waste your time!
3. Also, the sales effort could easily have left me feeling that NCL had its hand in my pocket every time I turned aound. ...You're going ashore? There's a person in an animal costume and a photographer there as you disembark ready to take a complimentary photo, which you can pick up at the ship's photo shop for prices ranging from $7 to $25. That sort of thing cheapens the cruise experience, I think, and can be avoided. You want a "dress-up" photo of the two of you and the family? NCL has photographers in the ship's reception area with various backdrop screens. Again, you'll pay a price for that. We did buy a couple of photos. ...But, we got equally nice shots, if not better, for free by asking fellow passengers to use our camera. You want to play bingo? $2 a card. And, 6 raffle tickets for 20 bucks? Sorry, but that's probably not why you've chosen to go to Alaska. Too bad NCL doesn't understand that. You want to experience an art auction with free champagne? Be prepared to waste an hour or two listening to a spiel about schlock artists, their paintings, and the delivery charges. Likewise, wih the jewelry sales on board ship. Ignore such pitches as you would the 3-card Monte games on the streets of New York... and don't hesitate to let NCL know of your discomfort with such "special opportunities."
4. Food. Yes, we agree the food in the Market Place (Deck 12) was not anything special. But, it was not bad or disappointing, as one reviewer seemed to suggest. It was plentiful, well presented, and of a greater varierty than I had anticipated. However, like so many cafeteria or buffet efforts experienced elsewhere, it was not as enjoyable as it could have been in a non-Freestyle arrangement. For, what really detracted from the experience with the Market Place food was the ambiance....my fellow passengers. (As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy, and it is us.") They were many (of course) - and loud, and - I don't mean to sound elitist - sometimes not so schooled in etiquette. Given the international make-up of our passenger list, I guess one has to expect that. But, I didn't enjoy it, and by Day 2 we learned to dine in the Versaille Restaurant, or the other dining rooms, even if we had to incur a cover charge. (Desiderata...."Avoid loud and bositerous individuals, for they are vexations to the soul.") In my book, ambiance is always worth half the price of a restaurant, at home or aboard a ship. So, make your trip enjoyable. Pay the $10 or $20 cover charge for the EXCELLENT service in the restaurants. Without exception, we found it worth it.
5. Excursions. We took two of them through NCL. The Mendenhall Glacier and Salmon Bake in Juneau, and the White Pass -Yukon RR trip in Skagway. Thoroughly enjoyed them. Again, had I to do it all another time, I would probably book them on my own. But, innocents that we were, we put our credence in NCL's guarantee that they would leave the light on if we arrived late back at the ship. We found that the Juneau excursion left us no time to explore the downtown area; still, I'm glad we chose it. People have complained about what some call a "needless" or "wasted" stop in Prince Rupert, BC. I totally disagree. Again, you'll get out of it what you put into it. Go. Talk with the locals. They are very congenial and will be glad to share a bit about themselves and BC. Go to the museum. Go to Smile's Restaurant. Find a street fair. Watch the eagles. Visit the cargo termnal. My opinion? One of the nicest stops we made. Ketchikan? Also a good port. I see that Cruise West has decided to cut Ketchikan from its itinerary next year and to add Anchorage instead. Patron preference. So be it. But, we got more out of our self-styled visit to Ketchikan than we expected. Imagine getting to meet Israel Stonridge in person, and seeing him carving totems! Imagine talking with a young Haida Indian who thoroughly loves her work and her heritage, and who can talk with eagles. It was a wonderful stop, we felt.
6. Do go to the NCL -U sessions on board ship, the half hour or 45 minute presentations about Alaska, or the history and culture of the place for which the cruise you are taking is named !. They are not "great" lectures. But, they are at least an easy way to get some feel for why you chose to take a cruise to Alaska. If you want to spend your time in the casino or in the pool, wonderful. But, you can do that for a lot less money than by paying the premium for a trip to Alaska.
7. We encountered a number of passengers who seemed to express surpise about NCL's $12pp/per diem service charge, or about other incidental charges that appeared on their final statements of account. I guess my only reaction is: don't people read anymore? Do you go into a gourmet supermarket, pick up a loaf of fresh baked bread, and express surprise at the price when you get to the cash register? Read the fine print and ask questions before you sign up for the cruise.
Finally, the weather. I wanted to do this earlier in the season, not at the peak. But our TA convinced us to go in July. It turned out to be her best recommendation. Although others told us to take rain gear and to dress in layers for chilly weather, we had the good fortune of an exceptional spell of clear, warm, dry weather.
On balance, we were impressed with this, our first cruise. The ship was clean, comfortable, the crew was always polite, professional, and helpful. NCL's concern about cleanliness and hand-sanitization was also a comforting touch. Would we do it again? Probably. (If we can afford it). Would we choose NCL again? Maybe, maybe not. But, don't write them off. It's a good cruise, a good ship.