My wife and I returned home yesterday from the Norwegian Star 7 day Mexican Rivera cruise that departed LA on March 6th. We had cruised on Carnival twice prior to this trip and had wanted something more relaxing and less intense and found that with NCL we were able to accomplish that. In talking to experienced NCL cruisers they had express concern over many of the cutbacks that NCL has made to deal with the bad economy. Because this was our first time on NCL I can't speak to any of those cutbacks. Our last cruise with Carnival was 3 years ago and it seemed that more was included in the price (sushi bar and cappuccino come to mind) then NCL did on this trip but I am assuming that Carnival may had to cut back as well. Despite any criticism you may read below we would defiantly do this trip again.
The Star had been scheduled to be a hotel for the Olympics prior to our trip but because it was not needed for the Olympics we benefitted from some remodeling of the ship while it was not in use. It may have been because of this but the condition of the ship was fantastic. Our room was better then we expected and all of the public areas were well maintained. Or Cabin had the best restroom of any of the ships we have been on.
The 3 ports of call on this trip Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta are picturesque and interesting places.
With one exception (see crowd control below) the staff was really friendly.
The excitement and anticipation we felt for going on the cruise was quickly dashed when we got off the bus and then waited in a line 90 minutes to check in and then finding that the only onboard greeting was a staff member swiping our card. Part of the allure of cruising is the feeling of doing something special and the entire check-in/embarkation process takes away from that.
Getting off/on in Cabo: I'm not sure there is not much NCL can do about this but takes forever to get off the ship in Cabo. If you do not book a shore excursion you need to get a ticket and wait for you number to be called. The ship is in port from 11-5 so there is not a lot of time in port. They start distributing the tickets a little before 11. We picked up our tender ticket at 11:30 and did not have our number called until after 1:00. We also found a lot of people jamming the hallways waiting for their number to be called which made the whole process very unpleasant. If you are planning to do Cabo on your own my suggestion is to get your ticket early. It was just a bad getting back on. We found the line to get back on the ship to be at least a quarter mile long. If you experience that we suggest that you do what we did and find have a seat at a nearby bar, have a drink or two, and wait for the line to get shorter.
When we got of the ship to go to our shore excursion in Puerto Vallarta it was disorganized and chaotic. About half the group that was going on our excursion thought the tour guide said "bus 4" so we headed over to where some busses were. He had said "boat four" so the half of the group that understood him started walking the quarter mile or so to where our boat was. After asking several clueless staff members where we should go a very agitated staff member implied we were stupid for misunderstand and kept muttering to himself as he led us to where we were supposed to be. Even if were stupid we are paying customers and deserve better treatment.
We found that the process of booking our shore transfers to and from LAX to be quick, simple, and I would highly recommend using NCL for airport transfers.
We did the "Stone Island Beach Getaway" excursion in Mazatlan. It was an enjoyable day and we are glad we did it but there was a great deal of exaggeration in the description of the excursion. The brochure spoke of a "30 minute journey" that could have taken 5 minutes as the endpoint is about a quarter mile from the start point I would have rather had that time on the beach. The "Open Bar" on the boat turned out to be a staff member handing out water. The "island style lunch" was not very good at all. But all that said it did make for a relaxing day on the beach.
We did the Los Caletas Shore Excursion in Puerto Vallarta. It cost $95 but was well worth it. Los Caletas is a remote beach area that was once owned by movie director John Huston. The ride over was fun, the place is gorgeous, the staff handling to tour could not be more accommodating, the food and drink that comes with the package is top quality. The lunch we got on the island was the best meal of the trip. Do this, you will not regret it.
We love free style dining: There were no pre set dinner times you could eat dinner in the main dining rooms any time you wanted. This allowed for great flexibility in planning our days. With the exception of one evening we never waited more then 5 minutes to be seated. The food ranged from OK to pretty good and the service was good. We never had to wait more then 5 minutes for a table. The have I think 6 extra charge restaurants on board but we did not try any of them. I'm thinking that they don't want to make the dining room food too good or no one will pay extra for the more expensive restaurants.
We mostly had the buffet for lunch. The food there was better then we expected. The roast chicken was really good. The selection of food was great. One of the days they made seafood paella outside of the pool area and it was really good.
The breakfast was all good. On days we had time we had the omelets on the pool deck of the ship, they were our favorite.
We like wine. We bought 6 bottles on the first night of the trip and got a 20% discount.
A couple of shows only had one performance and we did a lot of talking at dinner with some friends we made at dinner and could not find a seat for either of these shows. We saw Second City standing in the back and found it to be very funny and enjoyable. We also enjoyed the comedy jugglers. We saw the song and dance tribute to the 80's. They did a lot of Queen songs and the performers on stage made Freddy Mercury seem like Arnold Swartznager.
The weather on our sea days was kind of chilly so we did not spend as much time on the deck as we would have liked. That brought out one major flaw with the ship. There is no quiet indoor place other then your room on the ship. It is my understanding that they closed off some of those areas on the ship to add more family suites. I am also assuming that they sacrificed some of these areas in order to build the extra pay restaurants. I can only drink, bingo, eat and gamble so much. I would have liked to have had the quiet spot to read when it was too cold to be outside.
I don't know why in this day and age they don't give their staff had held scanners. All the paper is hard to manage. On two occasions they did not return my card and I had to hunt them down to get it.
While we are talking technology their photo staff should realize that there is such a thing as digital photos. I suspect if they charged a reasonable amount of their photos or gave the customers the option of downloading them for a reasonable fee they would have a lot fewer photos to throw out at the end of the cruise. That said they did offer 4 8x10's for $60 on the last day of the cruise and that was more reasonable then the $25 they had been charging prior to that.
When we were on our Los Caletas excursion there were also travelers from Holland America and Carnival with us. Some of us had an impromptu "who has the best beach towels" contest. Carnival won both for being the softest and the most substantial, Holland America came in second place, with the NCL towels coming in last place.
If they really cared about their customers they would let the folks going ashore know where to find the best flea markets, who has the best prices on Cuban cigars or who has the best meals or margaritas. Instead of doing that they push the stores that give them kick backs, mostly jewelry stores where they want you to buy some jewel no one has ever heard of, and don't have much information to share about anything else. They don't even provide city maps. Exploring foreign lands is scary for a lot of folks and they miss out on lot by not having the cruise line give impartial information with the needs of the traveler, not the need to line their own pockets being the top priority.
One of our favorite things to do is go on a ships tour. We had gone on behind the scenes tours on both of our Carnival Cruises. I saw a sign of the front desk for a behind the scenes tour and when I went to sign up was told it was $55 a person. Give me a break $110 for a crew for a crew member to show us the ship. We passed. We attended a Cruise Critic "meet and greet" on the first full day of the trip and found it very useful. If you get a chance to go to one do it.
If you are traveling with kids, like to party or like to go from activity to activity than Carnival is probably a better choice (at least what I remember of Carnival). If you want to relax then I would recommend NCL. Next time we cruise it will probably be on NCL.