We returned recently from the Star's Pacific Coastal repositioning cruise. We had a wonderful time and enjoyed the cruise -- even more because it was such a great value. Our first-time cruise friends booked an inside cabin, and we had a balcony. $249 per person for a six day cruise was a great way to introduce someone to cruising, and I think our balcony was $449 per person, which is the same amount that we paid for our first 7 day cruise on the old NCL Sea 5 years ago -- in one of those tiny, 110 square foot inside cabins, so we felt that it was a good deal for a balcony as well.
If you're considering a repositioning cruise, do NOT think you can get away with booking a one-day NCL cruise to go from Seattle to Vancouver before. We were talking with a couple in the taxi line at San Pedro who had tried that -- and were escorted off the Star's one-night sailing, 10 minutes before the ship sailed. It cost them $500 in bus and hotel fares to get to from Seattle to Vancouver to board the repositioning cruise. There were several other posts I saw regarding this. Most of them NCL managed to notify prior to their actually boarding, but they were left scrambling to try and figure out how to get from Seattle to Vancouver. The law (Jones act, passenger services act, whatever it's called) may seem like a silly rule to us cruisers, but the ship will NOT let you get away with it once they discover that you're on both sailings. The couple we talked to was upset with NCL for not notifying them sooner -- but more upset with their TA for not realizing that the combination of sailings wouldn't be permitted.
Prior to boarding the Star, we did the one-night Golden Princess cruise from Seattle to Vancouver. The first part of this review will include some comparisons between the ships, as it was our first cruise on Princess.
As far as the ships go, I prefer the layout of the NCL ships. It may just be a comfort level, as the last 4 NCL ships we've been on have been so similar, but we had a little trouble finding our way around on the Princess ship. The cabins on the Golden were noticeably larger than the ones on NCL, and had nice flat panel TV's compared to the older ones on the Star. The bathrooms on NCL were definitely better than the ones on the Golden. I love the design of NCL's bathrooms on the newer ships, with the shower doors between the different areas of the bathroom, and find them much nicer than the shower curtains which are still in use on the Golden Princess. Our bed on NCL was more comfortable than the one on Princess. We were in an inside cabin on the Golden, and it was quite obvious that the beds had been pushed together -- and there was a noticeable ridge running down the middle of the bed.
As far as the overall ship decor, NCL was much brighter than the Princess ship. One of my CC friends said she finds Princess' decor boring. I think I prefer NCL, but again, that may be a matter of familiarity. Both ships had music playing in various venues around the ship. That is totally a matter of individual preference. I liked what was being played on NCL. My DS made the comment that they preferred the classical music on the Princess ship.
As far as food goes, we had the interesting experience of being served Prime Rib on the Golden, and having it again a couple of nights later on NCL. As a loyal NCL cruiser, I'm afraid that, hands down, the food award goes to Princess. A much larger, better prepared cut of meat, with a baked potato instead of whatever sort of starch was served on the Star along with their prime rib. We also tried the cold soup on Princess, and were surprised that it was served as a smoothy -- complete with a straw -- instead of in a bowl with a spoon as NCL serves it. The flavor that night was a pina colada one, and it was delicious -- as were most of the NCL's during the next week. We also had shrimp cocktail on both ships. The one on Princess included 4 or 5 fairly large shrimp, served with regular cocktail sauce. The one on NCL is a baby shrimp cocktail, served in what I'm informed is remoulade sauce. Again, we preferred the one on Princess.
We were quite surprised with the dining room on Princess. I much preferred the setting of the Versailles on the Star. The Princess dining room reminded me of the old, antiquated one on the old NCL Sea. Nothing ornate about it, with no extended ceiling height. I don't know if the other two dining rooms were the same, but it wasn't what I was expecting on a Princess ship.
We didn't notice anything much different about the service on Princess compared to NCL, but obviously didn't get the experience of having traditional dining on a one-night cruise. I'm still curious to try that sort of atmosphere, and I think we'll continue to look at both NCL and Princess, in particular, when choosing our next cruise.
We didn't like having to be off the Princess ship by 8:20 in the morning. I prefer NCL's freestyle disembarkation, even if it means you can't go to your cabin immediately upon boarding.
We spent most of our time on the Golden Princess just exploring the ship, but did enjoy their production show, called Cinematistic that night. We were quite surprised to be informed that we were due to disembark at 8:20 AM on Sunday --- we'd hoped to be allowed to stay on the ship until at least 9 AM, but instead, we were pulling our luggage off the ship at 8:20.
We took a taxi from Canada Place, where the Golden Princess docked, to Ballantyne to board the Star. Since we were there so early, we had cleared customs and were waiting to board the ship by about 11:00. We were onboard by shortly after 11:30. They made the normal announcement that the cabins should be ready by about 2 PM, and that we could check any luggage at the Carousel Bar if we wanted. We didn't carry that much on with us, so we didn't bother.
We ate lunch at Versailles and introduced our friends to the wonderful chilled banana & mango soup, and promptly got them hooked on chilled soups too. By 1:30 they announced that we could go to our cabins, so we found our cabins and left our carry-ons inside. We then met up with our friends and showed them around the ship a bit, did the muster drill, and met several of our CC roll-call posters in the Bier Garten for an informal get-together during sail-away. The weather in Vancouver was beautiful, and it was great to be back onboard. We ate dinner in Versailles again, went to the show which was an introduction to the Jean Ann Ryan Company, and then headed to bed as we had a fairly early whale watching tour scheduled the next morning. I'd wondered what we'd do during the time between Vancouver and Victoria, as it certainly doesn't take from 4 PM to 8 AM to get between the two ports, but the ship sailed aways out of Vancouver, and then seemed to just sort of drift around in the ocean for a while.
We woke up to a beautiful day in Victoria. We grabbed a quick bit of breakfast in the buffet, and left the ship by about 8:30 am. We got a taxi and had him drop us off in the inner harbor area, where we'd arranged to go whale watching with Naturally Salty tours. When we got there, he explained that he'd "double booked" for the morning's tour. He would either arrange to get us on with another company, for a 25% discount, or we could wait for his afternoon tour. We didn't want to wait for the afternoon tour, which was due back into Victoria at 4:00 pm, since we were due back on the ship at 4:30 and that was cutting it too close for us to feel comfortable. He called Springtide and arranged for us to join their 10 AM tour. Both our friends and my DH and I were left with the feeling that he'd simply gotten a better offer -- a bigger group -- and decided to shuffle us off to someone else.
Naturally Salty's boat only held 12 people and the Springtide boat is much larger and will accommodate 50 or more. If it had been full, we wouldn't have been terribly happy, but since they had a small group of about 20, we felt like we had plenty of room to walk around and see the whales. There was a marine biology student onboard who did an excellent job of telling us about the different whales and marine life we were seeing, and we felt that it ended up being a very satisfactory tour. We unfortunately didn't see any Orcas -- the resident pods were out of sailing range that morning -- but we were able to spend quite a bit of time viewing a couple of humpbacks that were traveling together. We also sailed out to Race Rocks and saw the lighthouse and all the sea lions, and saw seals, turkey vultures, and lots of other birds. It was chilly out on the water, and they provided extra coats and hats for anyone who needed them.
We were back onboard the ship by about 2:30, and just made it up to the buffet before it closed. After another serving of chilled soup (I've forgotten the order we had them in), and a satisfying lunch, we all returned to our cabins for an afternoon nap. After all, the ability to be able to relax is one of the things I enjoy most about cruising.
That night we ate in Versailles again and attended the production show, Music of the Night (featuring songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber). It was very well done, and all of us enjoyed it. During the show, the wife of the couple we were traveling with leaned over and asked if I'd noticed the rocking of the ship. I said yes, and didn't think a lot more about it. Unfortunately, she noticed it way too much and had to make a trip to the purser's desk for meclazine. They've sailed a lot on Lake Powell and she wasn't expecting to be seasick, but luckily it didn't last too long.
We did notice a LOT of movement on the ship this cruise. A couple of nights we were informed that there were gale force winds, but the seas never had lots of big waves. I guess the wind must have been causing the motion, and we spent a lot of time rolling from one side to the other, and occasionally up and down as well.
Tuesday was the day for Astoria, OR. Since we were in port from only 8 AM to 4 PM, we again retired early so that we could get a good start the next morning. We headed into the Columbia River about 6:30 AM, and were greeted with a beautiful lighthouse and gorgeous sunrise. That's why I can't stay up late at night -- I can't bear the thought of sleeping through the sights as we're pulling into port in the morning.
We'd arranged to rent a car in Astoria, and were planning on driving as far down the Oregon coast as we felt we possibly could. Unfortunately, by the time we went through the US immigration process, it was almost 9:30 before we got off the ship. We'd arranged to rent a car through the local Toyota dealership (Lum's) -- the regular rental car places have a very limited selection, and were overbooked by the time we decided what we wanted to do. Lum's picked us up in their shuttle, and took us to Warrenton where they had the two cars we'd reserved all ready for us. Since we had to be back on the ship by 3:30 for a 4 PM departure, we decided we didn't dare drive any further than Cannon Beach.
We stopped at both Seaside and Cannon Beach, and were very impressed with the wonderful scenery along the Oregon coast. Returning for a land vacation is definitely on my list of places to go in the future. After heading back north, we drove over the long Astoria bridge, and a short ways up the Washington side of the coast. Then we dropped the car off, caught our shuttle back, and had lunch in the buffet.
That night we decided to eat a bit later, as our lunch was so late, and there was a special showing of a Chinese Acrobat company in the Spinnaker lounge at 6:45. All 6 of us attended, but the setting of the Spinnaker Lounge didn't do the acrobats justice, as many of the seats had obscured vision. The regular show that night was a comedienne, but none of us felt like attending, so I have no idea how the show was.
Dinner that night was in Aqua. We recognized the Maitre'd from a previous sailing on the Pearl, and visited with him for a short while. The food and service was fine, but our party decided we preferred the ambiance of Versailles, so we didn't return to Aqua.
Wednesday morning dawned, but without my sunrise. It was very cloudy and remained cloudy and overcast all day long. Our meet and greet was scheduled for 11:30 AM in two of the conference rooms on the ship. Several of the ship's crew were in attendance, including Ray Carr, the cruise director, and several of the housekeeping/food & beverage officers. Ray cheerfully introduced them and they spent several minutes answering questions for us. We had a good turnout from the posters who had signed up, and enjoyed the opportunity to get better acquainted with several of them. We then had a gift raffle and I ended up with some lovely treats from Hawaii!
Our friend's brother and his family had traveled to Alaska on the Star about a month earlier, and came back raving about the Blue Lagoon, so our friends had been anxious to try it out. I can see why people enjoy eating there so much. The fish and chips were delicious, and we were able to stop at the buffet first to enjoy the lunchtime chilled soup selection.
Wednesday night was "dress up or not" night, so we threw on our slightly fancier clothes, and returned to Versailles for dinner. Dinner choices include Beef Wellington and the Lobster/Grouper extravaganza. I didn't feel like either of them, but the rest of our party enjoyed the lobster and I was satisfied with my "always available" steak. The Captain announced Wednesday night that we'd be sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge between 6 and 6:15 AM. So, Wednesday night was another early-to-bed night for all of our party. We scheduled a wake-up call for 5:45 to make sure we didn't miss anything -- but we might as well have slept in as the bridge was almost totally obscured by fog. We finally started to see an orangish glow as we got closer, but our view was limited to one of the bridge supports and a tiny bit of the underneath of the bridge deck. By the time we sailed past Alcatraz, we were able to see a little bit more, but it was too dark for a very good view.
The Star was docked at Pier 30/32, which is seldom used for cruise ships. The advantage was that we got to sail under the Bay Bridge, and even though it's not as beautiful as the Golden Gate Bridge is, it was pretty in its own right from the ship. We had arranged to rent a mini-van here in San Francisco, but ended up with a Ford Expedition instead, and appreciated the room since we had 6 adults in the vehicle. We'd decided to drive to Muir Woods. Again, the Golden Gate Bridge was hiding from view -- both ways -- but Muir Woods was beautiful. It had been years since I'd been, and it's so totally unlike anything here in Utah that we enjoyed our visit. We drove back into San Francisco, and had the obligatory clam chowder and sourdough bread for lunch. I'd forgotten what a pain it is driving in San Francisco. Luckily my BIL wasn't rattled by all the traffic, and we were able to return the rental car by about 4:30 M and were back on the ship in time for dinner.
The show tonight was the performance by Second City. My DH and I have seen them several times, and no one else in our group was interested, so I returned to our cabin for a nap after dinner. The rest of our party tried to see the bridge as we sailed out to sea -- but again, it was foggy and I didn't miss anything.
Thursday night was also the Chocoholic Buffet. It was set up in the Versailles restaurant, and was probably the best experience we've ever had at one of these events. The announced time was from 11 PM to midnight, but they opened it as soon as everything was ready -- which eliminated the crowds as people were sent in as soon as they arrived. We got to Versailles about 10:45, and walked right in. Since we'd frequently spent quite a bit of time waiting in a long-line on other ships, we thought this was a great improvement. As always, it's prettier to look at than anything else, but I do love the fruit skewers that they dip in melted chocolate at the chocolate fountain.
Friday morning dawned cloudy and foggy. Again, no sunrise, much to my dismay. We spent the day in various activities. I joined my DS and BIL for a team trivia event. My BIL participated in the ping-pong tournament, and we returned to the Blue Lagoon for another round of fish and chips. Friday night was our last night at sea, so after another fairly early dinner at Versailles, we returned to our cabins to start packing. We went to the later show of Band on the Run, which my DH and I saw on one of the other ships. It's OK -- but most of the music isn't what I'd pick if I was doing music from the 70's. With most of the passengers on this cruise being retired, I'd be surprised if most of them enjoyed it.
We left the theater, and stepped out on the Promenade deck to find that the clouds from earlier in the day were totally gone. We had a beautiful view of the moon and stars, and it had warmed up significantly. I wish it had done that earlier in the cruise, so our first-time cruiser friends could have enjoyed more of the experience of relaxing in the loungers on the Promenade deck. That's normally my favorite part of a cruise. As we were standing there, we noticed that we had dolphins playing alongside the ship, jumping out of the water and we watched them for quite a while.
We went to the Internet Cafe and printed our boarding passes for our flights the next day ($.50 per page), and then returned to our cabins. When my DH went out on our balcony, he discovered to his amazement that we had MORE dolphins swimming along the ship. We stood outside and watched them for probably 30 minutes or more. What a wonderful experience to end our cruise with!
Saturday morning, I woke up to see us pulling into the San Pedro pier area. Unfortunately, our cruise was ending . After a final breakfast in the buffet, we returned to our cabins, waited for them to call our luggage tag color, and joined the line leaving the ship. I don't know why, but it's the first time we've ever experienced any sort of line leaving an NCL ship. We located our luggage, went outside, and discovered to our dismay that the taxi line was VERY long. As we were flying home from Long Beach at 12:30, I was starting to get a bit stressed about making our flight. Luckily, the wife of our friends had the good sense to find the taxi supervisor and got our name on a list. After waiting for about 45 minutes, they called our name and we were able to get into a van for our ride to the airport. We arrived about 2 hours before our flight, and since the airport is so small, it only took us about 5 minutes to get through security. If we hadn't put our names on that list though, I think we still might have missed our flight
We really enjoyed our cruise, and our first-time cruiser friends liked it well enough to consider another one, so the trip was a success. My Mom was a teacher though, and a strict one at that, so I don't give "A" grades easily.
Food: B- While we certainly didn't lack for things to eat on the ship, and our scales show it, there has been a decline in the food quality & choices since we started cruising almost 5 years ago. On our first cruise, I can remember looking at the menu and having a very hard time deciding what I wanted each night. These days, I can almost always find something that sounds good -- with about a once-a-cruise fall back to the always available menu. Salad choices on this cruise were strange. Very few green salads -- other than the always available Caesar salad. Most of the desserts were just OK -- except for the wonderful Crème Brule' with chocolate on the bottom layer that is one of the best desserts I've ever eaten. The chilled soups were as good as I remembered (and anyone who has read my posts knows that I LOVE my chilled soups), and we particularly enjoyed the banana mango, the apricot and peach, and the black cherry soups. If NCL eliminates these, as it appears from the trial menus on the Dawn, it will make it much easier for me to try a different cruise line.
Not only were the food choices not as exciting as before (and part of this may be due to the fact that we've cruised on NCL 7 times now since January, 2004), but some of the food wasn't particularly good. Twice other members of our party ordered the always available steak. Once it was so fatty that they could hardly eat it, and the other time it was quite overcooked. Mine was very satisfactory, but I'd much rather have it served with a baked potato than French fries. At our first lunch on embarkation day, one of our friends ordered a pasta dish that she just sort of picked at. When we asked her about it, she said the pasta tasted like undercooked rice. We convinced her to have them bring her a different entree, but weren't impressed that her first meal was not satisfactory.
I'm still not convinced that "once a balcony, always a balcony", but we were happy that we had one this trip. We had our last $500 certificate from the old NCL MasterCard program to use, and it seemed a shame not to spend any more than that for our cabin. So, we splurged for a balcony. The bed was wonderfully comfortable! I informed my DH the first night that he might not get me out of it for the rest of the cruise... I love the NCL bathrooms on the newer ships that eliminate those horrible, sticky, shower curtains. There were a few small maintenance items in our cabin that keep me from giving it an "A" -- like some rust on the balcony and sticky drawers by the closet.
Many times on our cruises, we've found a waiter that we really enjoy, and we'll ask to be seated in their area when possible. We didn't bother this time. Partly because no one really stood out, and partly because we figured it would be harder with a party of 6. The food service was perfectly adequate -- but not spectacular. There was a HUGE improvement over our last trip on the Dawn, however, as we never had to wait more than 5 minutes to be seated in the main dining rooms.
Our cabin stewards kept our room clean, and we had towel animals 4 of the 6 nights. They didn't, however, bother to greet us by name, and never introduced themselves. If they had, we probably would have left them an extra tip. Since they didn't, and the automatic service charge has been raised to $12 per day, we didn't bother.
The production shows were fine. We really loved Music of the Night, thought Cirque Pacific was fine (and enjoyed the Chinese Acrobats who also performed in that show), and I could have done without Band on the Run again -- but my DH and our friends enjoyed it.
We enjoyed listening to the musical groups that were scattered around the ship. My DS made the comment that she thought she preferred Princess' classical string music, but I can take that or leave it -- and it puts my DH to sleep.
The main thing that stops me from giving an "A" for entertainment is the schedule on the sea days. We used to love the old game shows on the ships -- "Who Wants to be a Bazillionaire" and "Jeopardy" come to mind. We didn't ever participate, but we did enjoy watching. Those are nowhere to be found. We used to like the ice sculpture and fruit carving demonstrations -- again, didn't see those listed anywhere on the schedule. There was a towel animal folding demonstration one afternoon -- complete with a CD for you to purchase for $9 and take home so that you can make your own towel animals for your family and friends.
Much of the entertainment on sea days now seems to be centered on events that they can charge for. Wine tasting and mojito tasting ($15), bingo (way too expensive for my tastes), the art auctions -- even the previously mentioned towel animal demonstration. Very little offered that was of any interest to any of our party. Luckily, I can amuse myself with games on my Iphone, reading, and just relaxing.
Now that I've complained, I will give the cruise director, Ray Carr, a "thumbs up". While I don't appreciate his schedule of activities, it's similar enough to our last cruise that I'm sure he's providing what the corporate NCL office instructs him to. We enjoyed his sense of humor, and he managed to be funny without being annoying. I particularly liked the banter that he and one of the other officers (Rosita?) had going on at our meet & greet about the various lines he's worked on. He's definitely among my favorite cruise directors -- and probably second only to Colin Kerr from the Sun many years ago.
After our last cruise on the Dawn, we came home quite dissatisfied with the shipboard experience. We had LONG lines at dinner every night, service issues, and had talked about switching to another cruise line. This time, we didn't experience those issues.
I still don't like the emphasis that is placed on spending more money onboard. I'd rather pay a bit more upfront, and have better food in the main dining rooms, than feel like they've "cheapened" the options to encourage you to spend more money in the specialty dining rooms. We definitely got tired of the constant pushing of drinks by the bar staff -- they seemed much more obtrusive on this cruise than they have done previously.
On the other hand, for the price we paid for this cruise, we received a good value for our $$$. I'm sure all 6 of us are the kind that NCL hates to see board the ship: we don't eat in the surcharge restaurants, we don't drink alcohol, and we don't gamble. I think our onboard tab was only about $75 more than the automatic gratuities. We did buy an internet package, a couple of things from the shops, and a couple of sodas at dinner.
NCL did a lot to redeem the line in our eyes. We feel at home on the ships, and they'll probably continue to be the first line I consider when booking future cruises -- but I'm sure we'll eventually branch out a bit if we find a great deal or itinerary on another line.