We are an active Floridian couple in our mid-50's with 18 cruises, plus a number of other international trips, under our belts. We stay in shape for our journeys by walking four miles a day - so we are serious about our vacations and plan extensively for each and every adventure. A full transit of the Panama Canal had been a goal of my husband's for several years, and when we saw a great deal for this NCL Star sailing we pounced on it!
Our journey began on Saturday, December 5 when we drove from our home just north of Daytona Beach, Florida down I-95 for our one night stay at the La Quinta Inn East near the Miami airport. We have chosen this hotel for three of our one way cruises. The other two were transatlantic cruises, and we are able to keep our car parked at this hotel for free for our entire trip, plus they provide a complimentary shuttle to the port and free shuttles to and from the airport. The reasonable rates also include a well-stocked breakfast bar. Great deal, especially since parking at the port of Miami is now $20. per day! We registered for the shuttle as we were checking in and so caught the first morning shuttle to the port. We were some of the first in line to be processed at the Latitudes' counter. After we got our room keys we were escorted to a big lounge in the terminal to wait until the ship was cleared for us to board. Lots of folks somehow got in line in front of us, but it worked out fine and we actually got on the ship a bit after 12. What we had never seen before was the very long walk, actually all the way past the NCL Jewel to the Star. I guess they must have had a bunch of wheelchairs for the older less ambulatory folks as we had never seen such a long winding path to a ship before through the terminal.
There was no open lounge for us once aboard the Star to leave our hand luggage as we had on the Jade until the cabins were ready so we took it with us, along with our welcome glass of bubbly, to the main dining room, Versailles. There they had a place for us to stow our hand luggage and we were ushered to a wonderful window table for two. For our first lunch we chose barbecued ribs. These ribs must be similar or the same as the ribs folks rave about in their write-ups of the Soho specialty restaurant on the Star. They were absolutely delicious. What a great start to our cruise! Right after our meal we had a little time to tour the Spa and then to visit the restaurant desk in the Grand Atrium where we asked to reserve a table for 4 each night in the Versailles dining room. We had read about doing this on Cruise critic, but we told by the young lady doing the Star's restaurant reservations the only times available for this are 5:30 or 8:30, so we chose 5:30. We made these with the understanding that we would call the restaurant desk 15 minutes before opening should we choose to eat elsewhere any given night. We also saw the advertisement for the Your Ticket to Dine program where you could choose a 3, 4 or 5 dinner program for the specialty restaurants at a discounted rate. After seeing that program (which I had read about here on CC before sailing) I was fairly certain that the Star was not going to offer any of the 2/1 specialty dining options we had enjoyed on the Jade on our B2B cruises in Jan/Feb. I was correct. Later I found out that the Star and the Dawn were testing this program in Dec/Jan. From what we observed it was selling well on our Star sailing. They also offered a variety of other specialty dining one-time events throughout our sailing, including: first night only free cocktails with dinner at "selected" specialty restaurants (choice of one of three different cocktails); Soho Jazz Brunch; Murder Mystery Dinner (held in La Trattoria Italian - $20. pp charge; Endless Summer (Tex-Mex) panoramic Panama Canal viewing lunch; One Romantic Night - Soho; and Taste of India Dinner - Soho.
As the staterooms were now ready, we headed up to deck 10 to our BA balcony cabin. This is the highest category we have ever personally had, so we were excited. We had been in a BE balcony on the Pride of America and loved that trip and we really could not see any true differences in the two cabin experiences (except for a higher deck), but more on the stateroom later. One big difference: when we got our boarding papers we saw a note that said that there was a service animal on board but thought nothing of it. What are the odds? Perhaps we should gamble more because when we went out on our balcony the first time we heard it barking and spotted the saw dust pit placed smack up against our balcony divider. Yep. We were lucky enough to have the cabin directly next to the ONE service dog on board. It was a mother/daughter who had this animal, and neither had a visible disability but I have heard that some little dogs are trained as diabetic or epileptic alert animals. Our only real reminders that it was next door (we had a connecting cabin, too!) were a few occasional barking episodes. Oh - and we were very careful to keep our feet out of the "water" in the trough that ran in front of our balcony...(The folks on the floor below us with balcony cabins heard the little doggie barking on several occasions clearly as well) We felt sorry for our poor stateroom attendants as I heard the ladies exclaim loudly one morning while I was out having coffee on our balcony that little "poopsie" had done her "business" behind the toilet AGAIN! Guess that little sawdust pit on the balcony was not the ultimate answer to nature's call for that little doggie... Other than that small annoyance our cabin was well appointed (had one very squeaky drawer I tried to avoid opening only when absolutely necessary), but the bed was comfortable and the bathroom spacious for a cruise ship cabin. Loved the refrigerator, the bathrobes and the small coffee maker. We had brought along a supply of our own pre-ground coffee beans plus some french vanilla creamer - so we had "the taste of home" along with us and started each morning out on our balcony with our own fresh brew. We also enjoyed having the small sofa which was great for watching TV. Our cabin stewards kept our cabin in great shape with only a few slight lapses, like a missing towel, washcloth, or glasses, and these were corrected promptly when we asked. Our luggage did not arrive until right before the mandatory lifeboat drill. I worked as fast as I could putting our stuff away, after all this was our home for two weeks, and got about half done before the alarm sounded and we headed to the Aqua dining room with our life jackets in our hands (as instructed), for the drill. That was over quickly and from there we headed to the Biergarten up on deck 14 forward for an informal Meet Up with other CC members. We were wearing our specially designed Cruisin' the Panama Canal t-shirts with a picture of the Star in a porthole on the front, so were easy to recognize. A couple other folks also had these same shirts made and others wore name tags and/or mardi gras beads so we had no problem recognizing each other. It was great putting faces with names for folks we had booked tours with! We made arrangement to have dinner with one of the couples by promising we would not change for dinner and then headed back to our stateroom to finish unpacking before heading to the dining room. That first night the crowds for the 5:30 dinner time were not too bad. That was to change the next night - formal night. Our new friends met us for dinner on that first night and we thoroughly enjoyed their company. Getting to know each other on Cruise Critic is fun, but meeting face to face is really great. The four of us headed to the Welcome Aboard Show after dinner and got a small taste of several different performers. HUATULUCO, MEXICO was not a port option on this board format but it was our next port of call.
DINING: We enjoyed the food in both the Versailles and the smaller Aqua dining room. We were sorry that there is no Great Outdoors on the Star, which we so enjoyed on the Jewel and the Jade, but we adapted quickly We ate a few breakfasts in Versailles, but found that we greatly preferred the Blue Lagoon where we could have our omelets prepared to order, and unlike out experience at Versailles, they were served piping hot. We got to know several servers in the Blue Lagoon quite well and enjoyed them very much. One disappointment was that I had read about and specifically asked on Cruise Critic if the Star had the Aqua Dining room open for breakfast for balcony and above passengers. It was a main selling point for us booking a balcony this sailing. Apparently they had recently stopped doing this so it was not an option on our cruise, which I did not find out until I called down to the front desk to ask about it the first night. We sometimes went to the Garden cafe early in the AM to get some fruit and juice and we had a few lunches there as we both enjoyed the salad bar and the freshly sliced meat. We enjoyed three of the specialty restaurants on this cruise: Endless Summer (Tex Mex - $10. with free small margarita), Le Bistro (then it was $15. now up to $20. but BETTER than we had ever experienced on previous NCL cruises), and our favorite, Cagney's Steak House ($25. pp). We love having the CHOICES and always select at least ONE specialty restaurant per NCL cruise. Makes our cruises with NCL all that more special and resort-like. As I mentioned previously the Ticket-to-Dine option was being tested on our cruise, but we never got around to purchasing it. We used a coupon from the current coupon book for one free Tex-Mex meal with the purchase of 2 Le Bistro dinners before we were fully aware what the Ticket to Dine program offered. If that program is available on our upcoming Sun cruise, we will definitely purchase it. We never had occasion to use room service on this trip so can't comment about it.
ENTERTAINMENT: We found the variety excellent. A bit surprised that we only had a couple nights with the ship's singers and dancers featured out of 13 nights in the Stardust Theater. The Cirque Pacific show was excellent, although not quite as spectacular as the Cirque show we experienced on our Jewel sailing a couple years back. However, the Chinese acrobat team, who gave a separate late night show in the Stardust Lounge, were extremely talented and spellbinding performers.There were definitely some great acts all cruise long, including magic, solo vocalists (Jane Powell was one of them), pianists, and a hypnotist. The Second City Troupe was good, but guess we are getting a little too used to their brand of improvisational comedy as it seemed fairly predictable and not as original this cruise. We also enjoyed the Mexican folk dancers the afternoon we were in Acapulco. Our cruise director, (oo-Hoo) Hamish, was a riot and we enjoyed talking to him several times in our two weeks on board. He did a fine job organizing the talent and good variety of activities aboard. Wish we had had more time to enjoy some of the nightclubs, but what we did experience was very enjoyable. Particularly notable were the piano, vocals and guitar with Allan Roman and the piano stylings of Walter Montero in Gatsby's Bar, the Melodic Trio in the Grand Atrium, Mr. Motown Stan Sykes and the Star's show band. We tend to not stay up late many nights, although we manged four or five throughout our two weeks on the Star. Spent one night in the Carousel Lounge for late night karaoke with friends from our roll call, but they shut it down an hour early which our friends said had been happening most nights perhaps due to too few people in the lounge (low drink sales??) and that was disappointing. We ate early most every night and so attended the early show in the Stardust. We tended to get seats near the front most evenings, which was great for seeing the shows, but not so great when it was time to leave, The Stardust Theater needs some redecorating work and is showing its age. A number of the seats need to be replaced as heavier passengers have caused many to have sagging seats with a downhill slant. Some even had to be roped off for a time during our sailing. We did see some of the theater seats replaced during our two weeks on board, plus some other routine maintenance work like replacing carpets and painting. Six of us from our roll call formed a team for The Quest. Having witnessed and participated in this game on a couple previous cruises we came "prepared" with a bag of items and found seats right near the hosts in Spinnaker Lounge. We ended up coming in first place in The Quest! Let's just say: 'What happens on the Star, stays on the Star!' Larry and I also paired with another couple for Team Trivia morning sessions on every At Sea day. We did not end up in the top three teams, but had a great time trying! We only played Bingo one time, but spent several hours a number of evenings at the ship's casino playing the slot machines. Over the course of the entire cruise we end up $30. to the good, so were happy as we had fun playing. The Star's movie theater was a treat and we loved seeing films there. We watched several feature length movies, including Julie & Julia, plus the ship had a wonderful Panama Canal documentary that was well worth viewing which they scheduled several times so all the guests wishing to see it could get a seat in the theater. Larry and I had prepared ourselves pre-cruise on the history of the Panama Canal reading together David McCullough's Path Between the Seas. The Star also had the White Hot Party plus Monte Carlo Night and several other great late night parties, only a couple of which we were awake to attend . We almost missed the Chocoholic Buffet, but did make it right before they shut off the line. It was held in the Versailles Dining Room and had lovely ice sculptures and some very tempting treats. The Star even held some pool games and a deck party. We did not personally attend these, but some of our roll call friends did and had a great time.
We tended to spend any extra time we had on our balcony, reading, and enjoying the flying fish and even porpoises (spotted as we entered the port in Acapulco). The full day we spent cruising through the Panama Canal was truly the highlight of our cruise. We had a wake up call at 4:45 am and directly below our balcony at that hour we saw the Panama Canal Port Authority's motor boats off-loading our canal pilots and other authorized personnel who boarded the Star that pre-dawn morning to guide us safely through the Panama Canal. During the transit our ship's captain actually turns control of the ship over to the assigned Pilot from the Panama Canal Authority. We hastily dressed, grabbed a cup of coffee and some fruit from the buffet and headed to the front of the ship on deck 13 where many had already set up chairs and settled in to begin our transit. We stayed right up front there for several hours, through our first Gatun Lock transits. As the day dawned it threatened rain, but we were very fortunate to only have a few small showers with clear weather much of the time. Viewing the ships in front of us rising up to enter the locks was fascinating, especially considering this is all done with water pressure. We then moved to other positions on the ship for better views. Some of the best were from our starboard balcony where we could watch a couple large containers ships also transiting the canal that day and observe the huge mechanical mules doing their work as well as the workers with their ropes guiding us safely through our eight hours transiting the canal. In the early morning we could view the old abandoned French diggings we had read about. We also moved to the stern of the ship for views going through the locks from that vantage point. All fascinating! Traveling under the two massive bridges - the newly completed Millennium Bridge and the Bridge of the Americas was an amazing experience, as well. The huge skyscrapers of Panama City came as a surprise to us. We had not expected to see so much cosmopolitan sprawl in that part of Central America! A truly fascinating day for which this little blurb cannot do justice. One of my childhood girlfriends lives in Panama City with her husband and I wished we were making a stop so I could see her. I sent up a silent prayer and best wishes for her as we sailed out into the Pacific heading on our way to the Mexican Riviera.
OTHER ACTIVITIES AND COMMENTS : I went on a spa tour the first day and had fully intended to get a treatment or two but never ended up booking any appointments. We were just too busy with everything else this trip, and any extra time we spent enjoying our balcony view. However, I did make it to the gym a number of mornings and used the elliptical machines for a great workout. I was the organizer for our Cruise Critic official Meet & Greet.Jessica was the Group Service Coordinator aboard the Star that set everything up for us to meet on the first sea day at 11:30 am in the Aqua Dining Room. We had well over 50 folks from our roll call attend and a number of the Star's officers including the Hotel Director, Cruise Director and several others who answered a wide variety of questions posed by group members. The Star provided a nice spread of cookies and pastries along with coffee and tea all laid out for us. We also had an optional gift exchange that a good number participated in and it was great placing faces with names after chatting for months on our Cruise Critic roll call board. The cruise before ours had a banner made up and the left the banner for us to use for our cruise. The banner featured a photo of the front end of the NCL Star in a porthole. It read: Cruisin' the Canal - NCL Star 2009-Panama Canal. Since there were only 2 NCL Star cruises that sailed the Panama Canal in 2009, our group posed with the banner at our Meet & Greet. When we reached our first port of Cartagena Larry and I displayed it from our balcony, but while we were out of our cabin headed to our shore excursion someone came into our cabin and took down the banner and folded it on the little table on our balcony. We discovered that the banner was down when we looked back at the ship from the dock and discovered the banner was no longer displayed there. After that we never tried displaying it from our balcony again... We also attended a Sunday morning interdenominational service held in the Spinnaker Lounge. As it was just a week before Christmas it was a joyous group participatory celebration for all of us who attended and we felt blessed to experience the gathering of many like-minded Christian believers from various places and backgrounds. Our port reviews follow in the new Port Review section Cruise Critic has set up. We took no ship tours, only private excursions we set up in advance with fellow roll call members or, in Huatulco and Cabo San Lucas we just did our own thing. Wonderful itinerary as all five of the ports, and even our debarkation port of San Pedro (LA) were brand new for us. After our cruise ended we had a four day post cruise trip to travel up the California coast on Highway 1 in a rental car as far as Carmel, CA, seeing the sights of Big Sur and visiting Hearst Castle. Then we drove back for a day a day and half of sightseeing in LA and Hollywood before catching our flight back home to Florida.
DEBARKATION: This was the only real "downer" of our wonderful 13 days on the NCL Star. Early on we knew we were going to opt for the option to carry our own luggage off the ship as we had made our own arrangements to get a rental car in LA. The night before debarkation we received a notice in our cabin that decks 10 and 11 - we were on deck 10 - would be the first decks to go through customs. This was to take place in the Stardust Lounge on the ship - a totally new experience for us. So we got up early and headed up to the buffet for an early breakfast. As we were eating we saw people lining up on the pool deck to enter the hallway leading to the Stardust Lounge. We hastily finished our meal and we got in the line, being that we were supposed to be in that first group. The line was already very long. Many folks in that line were not in group 1, but there was no one from the ship to question anyone's right to be in the line. The line never moved for two full hours! As the morning progressed there were a number of angry people who arrived to find our they needed to get to the back of the line - no matter what group they had originally been assigned. There was no one from the ship checking ANYTHING, although they did have all but one of the Stardust's entrances blocked off and crowd control was really handled by those in line. The only exceptions, apparently, were the suite guests (who were escorted privately through secret entrances into the Spinnaker Lounge by the concierges) and also those on NCL excursions or the NCL buses to the airport who were also personally escorted there.) The rest of us were just told continually to get to the back of the line. Glad we spotted what was going on early! We finally did make it into the Spinnaker Lounge where we presented our passports, declaration statements and were given our exit numbers. From that point we went and retrieved our luggage from our cabin and we were off the ship quite rapidly. However, the lack of a true 'plan' for the debarkation was readily apparent, and I am sure NCL received a number of angry complaint letters about the disorganization and poor planning to handle the crowds and extremely long, slow lines. I did hear later that the port authorities were late getting onboard and that contributed to the long lines and backlog. We, personally, were only questioned anout 15 seconds, and our bags were NEVER inspected at all.
Larry and I decided to do this port all on our own on foot. In the morning the Star docked in the lovely Santa Cruz harbor. After we disembarked we walked to Huatulco's central plaza along the waterfront where there is a church which contains a piece of an old cross which has an interesting history and contains a fragment from the cross described in this history. The following information comes from the plaque in the church. "Long before Columbus, the Huatulco area was well-known to the Zapotecs and their predecessors. The name itself, from Nahuatl means "Land where a Tree is Worshipped," reflects one of Mexico's most intriguing legends-- of the Santa Cruz de Huatulco - Holy Cross of Huatulco.When the Spanish arrived on the Oaxacan coast, the native people showed them a huge cross they worshipped at the edge of the sea. A chronicler of the time, Ignacio Burgoa, imagined the cross had been left by an ancient saint-- maybe even the Apostle Thomas - some 1500 years earlier. Such speculation aside, the cross remained there as the Spanish colonized the area and established their headquarters and a port which they named San Agustin, on the westernmost point of the Bays of Huatulco. Spanish ports and their treasure-laden galleons from the Orient attracted foreign pirates - Francis Drake in 1579 and Thomas Cavendish in 1587. Cavendish arrived at Bahia Santa Cruz, where he saw the cross the Indians were worshipping. Believing it to be the work of the devil, he and his men tried to chop it up and burn it. Failing at this, Cavendish tied his ship's mooring ropes around the cross and with his sails unfurled he tried using the force of the wind to pull it down. Frustrated, he finally sailed away, leaving the cross of Huatulco still standing on the shore. By 1600, a steady trail of pilgrims were chipping pieces from the cross, so much so, that in 1612 Bishop Juan de Cervantes had to rescue it. He brought the cross to Oaxaca, where he made four smaller two-foot crosses from it. He sent one each to church authorities in Mexico City, Rome, and Santa Maria Huatulco, head town of the Huatulco municipio. Cervantes kept the fourth copy in the cathedral in Oaxaca, where it has remained, venerated and visible in a side chapel, to this present day." After investigating the town and the church we found an internet cafe to connect for news at home for half an hour or so. We noticed many folks from the ship frolicking on the lovely beach and clear water right near the ship and then we began walking to see some of the famous 9 bays that make up Huatulco. We walked over the hill to our right facing the bay, a several mile walk, but we made it to several of the bays. They were indeed beautiful and we took some stunning photographs. Saw some large iguanas sunning themselves along the way, too. We figured we walked about 10 miles that day and we were happy to have some time to relax once we returned to the Star and watched the sail away from Hualulco from our balcony.