This cruise had some high points, but NCL is really not for us, and we won't sail with them again. We were not alone in this sentiment. We met other firt-time NCL passengers during our last excursion whose experience on NCL was similar to ours, and who said they would never sail with NCL again.
The NCL port staff in Los Angeles did an excellent job. Our luggage was taken for us directly from our limo to be checked. There was a long line of people waiting to check luggage, so I don't know how we ended up with this premium service, but I am thankful. We had a fairly big group, and the difference between booking airport transportation through NCL and getting a limo was very small. I'd highly recommend that to anyone with a larger group. We had heard horror stories about the wait and disorganization in boarding, but we had no problems. We were fairly early in arriving at the port, and the port staff was doing an excellent job at getting people checked in, and organizing the boarding to eliminate long lines. This was on par with our experience with Royal Caribbean at Port Canaveral, and much better than our experience with Carnival in Miami.
Once on board, we had the usual crowds at the buffet trying to get lunch (since the cabins weren't open yet, everyone is in the public rooms). This was not different than our previous experiences with other cruise lines.
This was the worst cruise dining experience we've ever had. We have enjoyed our cruise dinners in the past, and like the extra-special treatment of having the same wait staff every day. We had read online that you can get this more "traditional" style of dining by talking to the maitre d' after boarding. This is not true. We spoke with the maitre d', the reception desk, and the operations manager and the cruise director. You cannot get this kind of service. Your options are to go to the dining room very early or very late to get in with a wait of about 10-15 minutes, wait in excess of 45 minutes for a table at a more normal dining time, or pay extra every day for a reservation in a specialty restaurant. If you choose the main dining room, expect poor quality food and exceptionally slow service. We waited up to an hour to receive food after ordering in the main dining room. The cruise director had commented that you rarely feel like there are that many people on the ship, unlike other cruise lines with only 2 dinner seatings. On the contrary, our experience with traditional seating was that there was a very short wait (3 minutes or so) on the first day to be shown to our table. After that, we just walked in to our table, and never felt that there was a crowd. In contrast, on NCL, we felt the crowd every meal.
The staff pushed the option of making reservations in the specialty restaurants if we didn't want to wait. However, there were 5 of us. This would mean spending an extra $50 to $125 per evening to avoid a wait that I shouldn't have anyway.
The food was very disappointing. I have a few tips on the menu if you're cruising NCL. Any dessert that lists a sauce (for example lemon cream pie with raspberry sauce) will have only 5 or 6 dots of that sauce decoratively around the plate (not enough to even taste it). The sea scallops are the size of bay scallops. An entree of sea scallops consisted of 3 bay-sized scallops (even the waitress felt bad about that one). The bay scallops are half the size of normal bay scallops (or less). Finally, don't expect the labeling of the dishes to be correct. I ordered Fatoush one night (which I adore). What I was served was not bad, but it wasn't Fatoush.
I was also very concerned about the food safety. Our son got waffles one morning. He couldn't swallow even one bite. He said they tasted "moldy". My husband tried a bite, and immediately spit it back out. He described the taste as rancid. Our daughter, bravely, had eggs Benedict almost every morning, and never had an egg cooked the same twice. They ranged from cooked completely solid to having both the yolk and egg white runny. I spoke with another passenger who had food poisoning all day on our first port day (she hadn't had any food in Mexico because she hadn't been off the ship yet).
Room service was extremely slow, when you could get them to answer the phone, and the food was as underwhelming as the food in the dining rooms and buffets.
The "Chocoholics Buffet" was a lot of waiting in line for nothing. I don't know how anyone can mess up chocolate that badly. There was a chocolate Yoda sculpture displayed in the atrium for a few days promoting the "Chocoholics Buffet". I've enjoyed the elaborate ice and fruit sculptures on other cruise lines for their midnight buffets. But honestly, on this ship, I'd rather the chefs spend time actually making good food than making chocolate Yodas.
We spoke with other passengers that suggested that NCL makes the food in the main dining rooms so bad in order to get more people to pay extra for the specialty restaurants. Since we didn't eat at any of the specialty restaurants, I can't say if this is a possibility. The food there could be just as bad.
Some of the wait staff was competent and pleasant. I give credit to those people. There is really no monetary incentive for the staff with the Freestyle concept. With more traditional seating, we tip well at the end of the cruise for good service. But with Freestyle, the automatic tips are distributed equally to everyone. You could tip extra to a single staff member for exceptional service, but you can't have the same waiter twice (even if you ask; we tried). I have enjoyed exceptional service on previous cruises on other lines, and I like personally thanking these people while distributing tips.
I would rate the on-board entertainment as standard. We enjoyed the performances in the Stardust Theater. The bar service was also about average. We really appreciated the availability of popcorn in the Red Lion Pub. There were several times we ended up eating popcorn because we were hungry and the wait for a table in the dining room was so long. Unfortunately, there was only one staff member serving the popcorn. There was a sea day where she was completely overwhelmed with a huge line for popcorn. She looked completely frazzled.
We had a wonderful time in the ports (below), but that was thanks to the excursion operators and not NCL. Those excursion operators work with all the big cruise lines, and we would have chosen those excursions regardless (interestingly, I saw cheaper prices for the excursions through Carnival). There were so many times when we had an experience on board the Norwegian Star that we said that we should have just paid the extra money to sail on Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas (which we really enjoyed, despite its size, on a Caribbean cruise a few years ago). We won't make that mistake again.