After reading reviews of the Norwegian Star Panama Cruise here on Cruise Critic, I was in a panic. I expected to find a poorly run ship that was thread bare with poor food, marginal entertainment, surly staff and to be charged for everything short of air to breathe. I even considered canceling the cruise and picking another line for the Panama bucket list cruise. Surely NCL could not let such a poorly run ship remain on the line!
My experience with the Norwegian Star was entirely different from several earlier negative reviews. First, let us remember that cruising is changing. Money is tight on both ends. You can’t blame a line for testing ways to make a few extra bucks. What cruise line have you been on that does not have T-Shirts for sale, especially for a monumental crossing? What did you pay for a beer or mixed drink? Star’s prices were high, but no more than my last cruise. Most all lines have a specialty restaurant or two, its just that Star has six plus a “Best Of” and a “Taste of India” night. The cost for these restaurants runs from $10 to $25 per person. For what it is worth, most of these specialty restaurants were less than half full any time I had the opportunity to pass by and poke my head in. The exception is Cagney’s located on deck 13 foreship, which seemed to be fairly full for dinner. As a perk, certain cabins are able to have breakfast and lunch in Cagney’s. Having the opportunity to eat there, I must say every item on the menu was better than the next and well worth the fee to dine. Service was always superb. Endless Summer offered Tex/Mex food for a $10 fee. The food was wonderful and worth the extra cash. The only problem was the amount of food, there being enough to feed a small developing country. Being of an age where I was taught to clean my plate, I felt guilty leaving over half of the food when we left the restaurant. Do not overlook The Blue Lagoon, located on deck 8 midship. They serve “Comfort Food”: wings, burgers, fish and chips, fried chicken strips and the like. To answer a long running debate, yes the Sushi restaurant Ginza Asian does have a conveyer belt. I don’t care what it cost to get your fill of sushi in your home town. I felt it was worth the extra $15. La Bistro offered wonderful food in a quiet atmosphere. The specialty restaurants offered different styles of food and are well worth a try. Time will tell if these specialty restaurants are the future of cruising.
To continue on food, breakfast is available at several places. The food is standard breakfast fare. Yes, there is an omelette station. Was breakfast to die for? No. Was it good? Yes. Was it better or worse than other lines? Very similar. Thanks, Star, for the herring and smoked salmon (with capers) for breakfast. My favorite. Good, hot and filling with good variety is about all you can ask for. Treat yourself to breakfast at Versailles and enjoy being waited on. That is why you cruise anyhow.
Luncheon is no better or worse than any other ships. Good, hot and wholesome. The grill does a brisk business with burgers, nachos, hot dogs, sausages and the like. Market Cafe offers a wide array of many types of cuisine. Seating is more like a cafeteria than any other cruise I have been on. A bit stark and somewhat cold. Indian food is available for lunch daily. There is always a Chinese dish or two, make your own oriental soups, sushi, pizza, salad and other staples are available.
Dinner offers many choices. The “extra” restaurants offer Italian, Tex/Mex, French, Japanese, Asian and a good old American Steak/Seafood House. Aqua and Versailles are the two standard sit down restaurants without a fee. Early in the cruise, expect to wait to get a table, even with reservations. The line to the seating steward can be long. It seems like everyone wants to eat at the same time. The food there was very good and service was great. They were exceedingly loud and it was difficult to carry on a decent dinner conversation. The Market Cafe has good cafeteria style food with a large selection.
To end the food review, during a four month cruise around the world, my wife raved about the food initially but by the end of the cruise, the food was only so-so. Did the quality decline that much? No, only familiarity with the foods and eating the same foods daily became monotonous. It happens with us all. At least these specialty restaurants offers a chance to break out of the mold several nights during a cruise so we can try something new. The longer the cruise, the more we appreciated these extra cost restaurants.
The ports were interesting and tours fun. In Cartagena we hired a van through NCL. We were provided with a driver and guide. We went to Fort Felipe, Palace of Inquisition, the market place and the Walled City. In our group of six, one is in a wheelchair and another uses a walker that converts to a wheel chair. The fort was not handicapped friendly and not recommended if you cannot walk up several long steep inclines. The other places were fun and informative with easy access. In Puntarenas, Costa Rica, we took the Bus, Boat and Train tour because it is listed as handicapped accessible. Don’t believe that for a minute. I even discussed accessibility with one of the ships excursion personnel and was assured a wheelchair was no problem. We could not do the Boat part of the tour and had difficulty with the train part. The train did have a manual chair lift but only after we lifted the wheelchair 6-8 inches to place it on the lift. Others on our party did the Corobici river float. They reported a great time and they would go again, even though the Corobici river was low and they ended up on the Rio Tenorio. Shopping in Puntarenas was fun with many kiosks set up next to the pier. There seems to be a good business in nicely made puzzle boxes costing $5 each, sun dresses, coffee and the like. Prices were very fair and most all seemed to speak English. Beer is available, Imperial, Pilsen and my favorite, Bavaria cost $3 and are served ice cold.
Huatulco is a new tourist destination in Mexico. The town is picturesque as we backed in and docked at the pier. The wheelchair gang made an enjoyable foray into the port shopping zone, just at the base of the pier. The other half went on a River Kayaking Tour. If you plan on a meal there, try and get some dollars exchanged for pesos. A lobster meal was 200-250 pesos or $20-25, restaurants giving a 1:10 exchange rate while the official rate was closer to 1:13. I had 220 pesos and could get a lobster dish for around $16 equivalent.
In Acapulco we took two excursions, neither one being wheelchair accessible. The Historical, Traditional and Picturesque started with a trip to see the cliff divers who put on a wonderful show. We then went to the Hotel Flamingo, the highlight there was to view some old photos of long gone movie stars and to enjoy a drink. Next was a drive through town and to the Chapel of Peace which sits on the highest point of Acapulco. Lastly we ended up at Fort San Diego, just across from the port. An enjoyable trip but not too exciting. Another of our group went on the Botanical Gardens and Tropical Aviary tour. This included a boat trip through Tres Palos Lagoon for a nice birding adventure and to the Botanical Gardens. A vehicle ride through town took 90 minutes and was a bit too long in viewing Acapulco on a birding and garden trip. Still another went on a taxi ride through town, hiring a taxi at the stand next to the ship. He paid $20 for the trip which took about 4 hours. He visited several silver and jewelry shops and other points of interest, purchasing silver pesos and gifts for those back home. He was able to easily store his walker and had assistance when needed. He gave a generous tip and all were happy with the day’s excursion. In Cabo San Lucas, we did two excursions. The first was a two bay snorkel trip, having a good time and seeing many species of fish. Others went on a parasailing adventure which was fun and exciting. Since Cabo is a tender port, wheelchair access is difficult. Rather than try to board a tender, they remained on ship.
Boarding in Miami was easy, mostly due to the VIP status and having disabled cruisers. Others did not have such a good time. Once we arrived in the VIP lounge, helpful personnel pushed the wheelchairs for us, leading the way up to the gangway. We were responsible from there on, which is fair. If we can’t navigate the ship with our disabled relatives, we should not expect others to do so. A certain amount of responsibility must be assumed. I am always amazed that any port can funnel so many passengers on to so many ships in so short a time. Can I complain about boarding? Certainly. I have had worse and better. The port of Miami did a great job considering the number of ships that go through there on a weekly basis. Disembarking at LA went about as expected. It is never fun to leave a ship, what with paying bills, customs, luggage, etc. This was handled as good as can be expected.
Several have complained about the entertainment on board. By and large, a great time was had by all. Do not miss the Oh What a Night-Four Seasons Tribute Show. First class all the way. Dr. Scott Lewis is a hypnotist who does several shows at night and presentations in the afternoon. I attended his weight loss seminar one afternoon. How can a man hypnotize me while I was attempting to relax in the uncomfortable Stardust chairs? I certainly don’t know but when I woke up, I no longer wanted to eat everything in sight. When I did eat, I ate slower, and stopped eating when I was full. Sure, he sells his CDs. Bet your bottom dollar I purchased a set. The Roberto and Dorota acrobatic act was simply amazing. Another do not miss is Bud Wachter playing favorite tunes on the banjo, backed up by the house band. This was delightfully entertaining and a great crowd pleaser. Hilby, The Skinny German Juggle Boy was hilarious. The entire cast came together and presented Element which was awe inspiring. Other entertainers made for an enjoyable cruise. Some were better than others. It is that way on every cruise. The entertainment was much better than most. I had a great time at each and every show. The house Reggae band located at poolside was fun but they were a bit too loud. With the sound down, they were enjoyable to listen to all afternoon. There are two pianists on board and a small combo playing popular music.
We were lucky to have a handicap access room #12032. There was ample room for the wheelchair and walker. The raised toilet and wheelchair accessible shower were a plus. Our stewards Moe and Alfredo along with our Butler, Wilfredo (Butler, wow we felt important) were great. The room included a coffee/tea machine that uses the little coffee capsules. Once I learned how to run it, high quality coffee and tea were available anytime.
All of the staff were friendly and helpful. We tipped our cabin Stewards and Butler when we first arrived. I do not know if that made any difference but these three gentlemen gave us excellent service through out the cruise. The cruise director, Sinan, was new to this position. He did yeoman's duty and seemed to be everywhere, always happy and smiling with a kind and energetic word for all.
Three of the women purchased spa packages which included access to a lap pool, two different therapy pools, a serenity room, dry and wet saunas along with shower facilities. On a 13 day cruise the price was reasonable. They spent one to two hours daily enjoying the benefits which added to their cruise experience. It is adult oriented so no children to disturb the calming effect of this package.
OK, here are the bad parts about the cruise. The jogging track is closed from 8 pm to 8 am. There is a walkway/jogging track on deck 13 but walkers are shunted toward the lounge chair area. I felt like a broken field runner by having to dodge all of the chairs, wind breaks, etc. There is a walking track on the Promenade deck, Deck 7 but jogging is discouraged since there are narrow passageways both fore and aft. I have mixed feelings because whenever someone does jog or walks with heavy footfalls, we could hear and feel every step they made since we were one deck below. If you are an early rising jogger, you will have to adapt.
Not all elevator floor indicator buttons light up when pressed. A minor inconvenience but still a problem that should be repaired.
Everything was LOUD. The announcements hurt my ears, dinner in the Endless Summer and Blue Lagoon Aqua were uncomfortable because we could not understand each other over the noise of the band. Decibels averaged 85+ with a peak at 105 there, enough to damage hearing. Versailles was also very loud and poolside can be loud when the reggae band is cranked up. I got ear plugs and wore them whenever we went to a show or to the these restaurants.
I enjoy presentations giving information about the next port. This was lacking on the Star. Someone who is knowledgeable about the town, history and culture who could give a presentation would greatly enhance the experience. No, not just telling us the best place to buy the latest gemstone but an informational lecture so we would know what to look for or special places to visit. I bet this would increase participation in the tour packages as well.
That’s it. Thats all I found to gripe about. Everyone in our party had a great time and returned home relaxed. Most of our party said this was the best cruise they have ever enjoyed. I would certainly sail on the Star again. She is an outstanding ship with a great crew, worthy of note.