Cruising the Panama Canal was something I always wanted to do and when my brother mentioned the possibility, I jumped at the opportunity. Why cruise with my brother? Well our ladies just either didn't have the time or inclination to go on a 15 day cruise. So we were off. We are both former US Navy officers and both of us have cruised before.
Let's start with the embarkation process in Miami. It started soothly enough. But NCL's alcohol policy is the first thing which pokes you in the eye if you have a bottle of wine in your bags. I had read on Cruise Critic that the NCL Star would allow one bottle of wine per person on board for use in your stateroom, but if you wanted to consume it in a dining facility, there would be a corkage charge. Fair enough, but not true. The NCL baggage inspection goons discovered the wine (and many other passenger's wine as well), and then they proceed to make a big deal about it. They flagged my bag and I told them that were was a bottle of wine in the main compartment, but the goon told me that she had been instructed by NCL to go though everything first before "finding" the bottle of wine. So she proceed to inspect my computer equipment minutely before "finding" the bottle of wine. I suppose that this is some sort of "embarkation penalty" for bringing the wine. After they "discover" the wine, you have the option of paying a $15 corkage charge (even if you only want to drink it in your stateroom) or having them store the bottle of wine for the duration of the cruise. I opted for the storage option.
NCL made a lot of people rather angry that day and why a cruise line would opt to piss off so many customers is quite beyond me. I haven't seen this rigamarole on other cruise lines and I would have preferred to have been charged another $15 each for the stateroom and bypassed the alcohol rigamarole. If NCL is that hard up for cash that they would do this to customers, you really have to wonder! I have already booked another cruise and it isn't with NCL!
Anyway, let's get aboard and discuss the cruise. We had a nice balcony stateroom. Our reservation form confirmed that we had asked for the beds to be configured as two twin beds so we were a bit surprised to find it set up as a king. Of course they fixed that right away, but it was consistent with other service lapses. Out stewards were wonderful, and I am not sure where the lack of communication occurred, but it was systematic of service errors were noted in restaurants the general feeling that the Star is not a well run ship.
The Star has undergone a renovation and some things are a bit strange in terms of doors which were originally functioning but have been locked presumptively after the renovation. You feel this especially on the port side of the Star when a rain squall occurs and you are looking for cover on the upper decks.
NCL touts their "free-style" dining which gives you the option of when to dine. I like the idea, but haven't been inconvenienced to date by the dining practices of other lines which either offer their own free style dining or have sufficient other options available from a fixed dining schedule. NCL offers a number of dining options, some of which you have to pay extra for. That was new to me and although the sushi restaurant was wonderful (and well worth the $15 bump), the Tex-Mex restaurant was awful (I have lived most of my life in places with excellent Mexican restaurants, and the on board Tex-Mex restaurant is about the worst I have ever encountered). Another guest I spoke with called it a "rip-off". Apt term. Not worth a return visit and certainly not worth the bump charge.
But the cafeteria on the Star was great. We ate there a majority of the time. Nice options. I really do enjoy Indian cuisine and on many nights the Star offered some really good Indian food in the cafeteria. Also, there were a lot of Europeans aboard for our cruise and the Star had the usual breakfast goodies that Europeans prefer (and I like as well).
The sit down restaurants were just okay. The staff would often make a service error in the orders and the food was no better than the cafeteria. As I said, we ate most of our dinners in the cafeteria as it was quite good (and better than I would have expected). On the whole, the sit free down restaurants were mildly disappointing.
On the penny pinching side, you can only get orange juice (and other fruit juices) with breakfast on the Star. Other cruise lines offer a greater variety of non-alcoholic drinks, like lemonade, which never made an appearance on the Star. So you had better like tea, coffee and milk on the Star if you aren't going to buy some somewhat over-priced beer or wine.
So the food ranged from the outstanding (in the sushi restaurant) to the undesirable (at the Tex-Mex restaurant) with the cafeteria being the best option for us.
The sushi restaurant was wonderful, but nearly vacant the two times I ate there. I wonder if the specialty (the bump-up charging) restaurants are really worth it in terms of utilization of shipboard space. The only night that things were hopping in them was the last night of the cruise so far as I could tell.
Entertainment: some very good, some very mediocre. Some venues were packed and others, well, you would walk in and a small handful of people would be listening to some singer in big lounge and you would end up walking out within 5 minutes. But then some shows were very nicely done. Inconsistent is the word here.
Other activities: Bingo and Art Auctions. I really got tired of the on board announcement of bingo and art auctions. Why buy art aboard a ship? These just seem to be schemes to make money for NCL.
On board communications: The TV in our stateroom had the normal channels. But the time and date information was usually listed as: "N/A". Great. And the Star has some issues with time keeping. For example, we left port (Miami) on Eastern Daylight TIme (EDT) and arrived in Roatan, Honduras with the ship still on EDT. But local time in Roatan is Central Standard Time (CST), a two hour time difference, which provided some interesting announcements such as "The ship departs at 4:30 pm shipboard time, which is 2:30 pm local time, and when you combine that nonsense with the time not be available on the tube, well you call the front desk to ask what the heck the time is. Luckily the Star got its act together at the the rest of the ports, but the TV still wouldn't tell us what time it was. The onboard Internet is painfully slow and very expensive. Like a bad dial up connection during the busy hours and like a bad broadband connection at 3 a.m. In some of the ports Internet was available ashore, and at 5 bucks an hour, it seemed very cheap compared to NCL's pricing. The onboard wifi worked well and you could even get to NCL's website without having to pay for Internet service. We used that to check how the Internet was working (or not working) before signing in. You would think that the Star would have its own on board internet servers (with free access) to provide not only the info normally on the TV, but other stuff like the status of your bill, the ability to make reservations for dinners, excursion info, etc etc, but no, nothing like that. A missed opportunity.
I enjoyed the ports of call and always wanted to see the Panama Canal, so it was a fun trip, but NCL didn't help make the trip special.