This is a lengthy review of our 13 day Panama Canal Cruise from Miami to Los Angeles on the Norwegian Star. Cruise Critic was very helpful to me and I hope that this review helps others. My wife and I are a little abnormal cruisers in that we are only 28 years old. We have been on Royal Caribbean in Alaska and Holland America in Europe for 25 days so we have a good feel. All three cruises were great, but they are different and I hope this helps people decide which cruise best suits them. If anyone has any questions that I may be able to answer feel free to e-mail me at Mattdom1@hotmail.com
Food and Dining - a key part of cruising for us and it seems like most people is the food and dining experience. NCL is completely different than our other cruises.
Breakfast and Lunch- Due to our suite perks we ate most of our breakfasts and lunches in Cagneys Steakhouse which was very good. The menu was the same every day, but everything on it was good and the wait staff was very attentive. Only one of the dining halls, Versailles, is open for breakfast and lunch and our two attempts to eat there were not good. The first time we were told that it was full and it would be a half hour to be seated; the second time we had slow service that brought us the wrong food, and the food we ordered ended up being subpar.
Market Cafe(Cafetria) - We rarely ever eat in the cafeteria, and weren't impressed when we did.
Dinner (Main dining halls Versailles and Aqua) NCL is 100 % freestyle dining which means every night you show up for dinner when you want, every night you have a new waiter and sit with new people(if you are put at a larger table). Some people enjoy this, we did not care for it. It was an average 10-15 minute wait for dinner, not a big deal but we never had to wait on another line. I enjoy having the same wait staff every night. They know what you like and don't, your iced tea is waiting, my fruit soup is already ordered because after two days they know I am getting fruit soup, but that is just us. I actually preferred Aqua to Versailles, it is smaller but always had a shorter wait and seemed quieter.
The food quality was better than I expected from reading cruise critic, but the lowest of the three lines I have been on. They did a very good job on meat products especially lamb. It is difficult to cook steaks to medium rare for a thousand people, but our meat was cooked right every time. The problem was the seafood. The lobster was inedible(tiny but didn't matter because it was so bad we literally wouldn't have eaten more) most of the seafood was cooked past the point of having flavor. Most of the potato sides were good, but there rarely were any vegetables to speak of. On past cruises there were debates over what to have for dinner, we rarely had those debates this cruise. Most of the deserts were good, but not amazing. I'd stay away from anything with a pie crust or pastry dough, and I think all ships should stop serving crème brulee(or I should stop ordering it). The ice creams were very good. One other positive was portion size, they have the exact right amount of food so you are full but not stuffed; I heard a lot of people say this exact same thing.
We tried several specialty restaurants. The Asia Fusion/Ginza/Sushi bar was all combined into one and was excellent. I would compare to a high end Asian restaurant on land. Good sushi, though we didn't get too daring since it was our third day and doubted overly fresh fish. We ordered way too much food, and the waiter was excellent at bringing it out in pieces and letting us all share. Everything was good, especially the pork ribs.
La Cucina, the Italian restaurant, was also good, but we preferred Ginza. The appetizers and main courses were all good, especially the calamari and the chicken parmesan. I highly recommend the tiramisu for dessert.
The in-laws did Cagney's and said it was excellent, high praise from picky steak fans.
There were never any waits at any of the specialty restaurants. We made reservations but they were unnecessary as none of the restaurants were anywhere near full. There were never any two for one specials offered and when I asked our concierge about that possibility he said that NCL had stopped that practice.
The Stardust theatre was nice, pretty standard. The library and bars were all fine, nothing special. The pool and hottubs were always open and warm and there was plenty of room. Our single biggest complaint with the NCL Star, and what would prevent us from taking another cruise on it is the Spinnaker room. When on the boat we spend a lot of our time at the ship activities. We like trivia, cooking demonstrations, information sessions and reading inside while we watch the ocean go by. You can't do any of this on the Star. If not for the motion of the ship you can't tell the difference between the Spinnaker and the Conference Room at the Mariott. Our other cruises have had window filled public areas where we spent most of our time; we avoided the Spinnaker at all costs as it was dark and closed off. This move for a few extra staterooms was a huge mistake by NCL that I hope they don't repeat on any other ships.
Drinks are pretty comparable on all ships, as far as I can tell. The best deal on NCL is the two for one martinis in Star Bar. You can't beat a five dollar martini, and they were very well made. Red Lion Pub is a good place to watch a game, and the staff was good there as well. We did not enjoy Gatsby's the waitress was nice but the bartenders were not. We didn't try the atrium bar. A good piano guy can really make for a great bar - the Star does not have one. The same jokes, the same songs, not good.
My wife and mother-in-law used the spa. The second day was a sea day and they both got mani/pedis. My wife upgraded her polish to the "shellac" which is guaranteed to not chip for 14-days. This costs extra, but was well worth it. She generally bites and picks at her nails, and the polish really did last our whole trip. To get the polish off, you have to soak your nails in acetone and then just scrape it with an orange stick. If you are going to get your nails done at the beginning of the trip, this is the way to go because it will last the whole time. My wife also got a facial and a deep tissue massage. The facial was very good; the technician was nice and very informative. The massage was good, but the woman was very abrupt and rude. The prices are approximately twice what you would pay back home. Make sure you are very specific when making the appointment what exactly you want done. Then when the person comes to get you for the treatment, again say I'm here to get a "fire and ice" manicure or whatever other type of treatment. If you don't you may not get what you initially scheduled.
Sinan, the cruise director, was excellent. He was humorous without being annoying and just a good guy. The upper level staff from the captain down was very involved and fun. The problem, in our mind, with free style dining is that you don't have the same waiter so they don't get to know you and your likes and dislikes. Most of our waiters were very nice, but not as special as those that we have built relationships with in the past (Cagneys staff being the exception). Most staff spoke good English, better than most ships; however, few spoke well enough to do trivia which always made that interesting.
We were in 11560 an AB family suite in the mid/front on the port side of the ship. I have posted pictures of the suite, it is very nice. There is a large master suite with a huge bed, double sinks, garden spa tub, separate shower and toilet, very nice. That room is completely separate from a living/dining room area with a separate tv, couch, coffee table, kitchen table, mini bar and coffee maker. The master bedroom is separated by pocket doors (not a curtain as has been implied elsewhere), but I would not say it's a thick wall or soundproof. The smaller room has a tiny closet, standard cruise ship bathroom. I would compare it to an inside cabin, and could sleep three people. The issue is the other beds. The room says it sleeps seven, and you could fit seven, but make sure five of those seven have good backs and could sleep on wood boards if necessary. The extra two people would sleep in the living room. These rooms are meant for families, and children should be on these beds. It was ok for 28 year olds, would not recommend much older. We made a lot of use of our balcony, more so than on any other cruise. Part of that was the weather, and part was that all public spaces were packed due to the moving of the Spinnaker. The balcony is great.
Suite perks - The biggest perk in my opinion, was Cagney's for breakfast and lunch. The food was great, excellent service, no wait, it was nice. The embarkation and debarkation was another great perk. We had to wait a while to go through security, but once we got through that they took us over to a private room where there was food and drinks and we skipped ahead of everyone else. It was a great way to start the cruise. We only had one tender, in Cabo, the suite perk got us on the first tender which again was very nice. The Concierge, Patrick, was not overly helpful on the few occasions we asked for things and never offered anything on his own. The Butler, Chris, was always right on time with room service, brought us a little snack everyday at 4:00, kept our fruit bowl full all of the time and was very good.
The Cruise was from Miami to Los Angeles with stops in Cartegna, Columbia, Puntarenas, Costa Rica, Huatalco, Mexico, Acapulco and Cabo San Lucas. The other days were all at sea, with the one day going through the canal. This is entirely too many days at sea for us. We are not sit by the pool types, we played so much trivia we are ready for Jeopardy, and we refuse to play bingo.
Cartagena, Columbia - I chose to do a ship excursion here because of my lack of knowledge of Columbia and fear of the crime. We did the mud volcano, which I would recommend but only if you have few inhibitions and are willing to try new things, and also are not limited in walking up steps. The tour was excellent. The guide spoke great English (a complaint I heard from a lot of other tours) and only had 30 people which is small for a ship's tour. We were joined by an armed guard to make sure our tour was safe (a bit of an eerie feeling). They took us around the walled city which was very pretty and interesting. They drove us out of town, roughly 45 minutes, past some of the poorest country that I have ever seen but dotted with multi-million dollar condo developments. The mud volcano is a 200 foot tall "hill" that overlooks a beautiful lake. You climb steep, slippery steps up the hill and at the top it is hollow and filled with warm mud. You fall into the mud where you are completely buoyant and some Columbian men cover you and you massage in the mud and you float around for a while. It is an interesting experience. You sit in the mud for a while, they pull you out where a future TSA worker wipes you down and sends you back down the steps. You walk a couple hundred yards to a little lake where some older women literally assault you. They dump water all over you while holding you down and ripping your bathing suit down. It was both humorous and disturbing.
The Canal was far more impressive than I had expected. The engineering was incredible and watching nature lift a ship many feet in only a few minutes doesn't sound impressive but is a sight to see. This was the only cruise I have been on where I would say a balcony is a huge advantage. With no indoor viewing area on the front of the ship the only options for viewing the canal were to stand in the rain on the front, or watch on your TV. Our balcony allowed us to watch everything without getting soaked.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica
We took private tour in Puntarenas with Okey Dokey Tours. It got off to a questionable start as we sat in the vans for a half hour waiting for the guides to figure out what was going on. Once the tour got started it was excellent. They took us to a ranch with monkeys, a great lunch at an authentic little restaurant, a great fruit stand with tons of fresh samples, a river packed with crocodiles and ziplining. The ziplining was a very exciting experience and was very safe. From the people that I talked to that did the ship's ziplining, ours was both longer and safer. Overall we really enjoyed our experience, but you must temper your expectations. This is not the rainforest (Puntarenas is in the Dry Forest of Costa Rica), it looks a lot like a beautiful forest in the states in June or July. Also ziplines are so busy that there are not many animals to see, you are going for the experience not the sights.
This is a great little town, with very little information available on it. We had booked a ships excursion to do an authentic cooking class not being able to find anything else available. The excursion was excellent, again a solid English speaking guide took us to this little restaurant where they cooked authentic dishes and showed us the steps. In reality there was a ton to do in this town. We rented a moped and drove around, there are beautiful little bays and beaches all over, and it lacks the tourist feel of the other ports. We also rented a jet ski for cheap and cruised around the harbor. A very enjoyable time.
By far the best tour we have ever been on for the cost. If you are going to Acapulco go to Tours by Rudy. This is not to say that we loved Acapulco. It is a hugely populated city; the traffic was terrible (though our driver did his best). For $75 per person they met us at the dock and took us on a city tour that hit all of the highlights. The cliff divers are a must see. We also went to a turtle release, a neat thing if you are into environmental issues. We didn't talk to anyone that went on the Sea Turtle tour with the boat, but from the information about it on the TV, you just saw the turtle and watched some videos. The tour with Tour by Rudy actually allowed us to release turtles. Each of us were given two 1-day old turtles to name. You name them, kiss them and then release them out to the wild. It was truly amazing. We spent the whole day on the tour, went to place where the locals go to eat, to shop and to hang out. It was a great tour of a not so great city. (DON'T EAT THE TAMALES).
Cabo San Lucas
Cabo is a beautiful port. My wife and I went kayaking with Casey from Cabo Outfitters. They met us on time, took us out to the bay and tailored the kayaking to what we wanted and it was exactly what we wanted. We went to Lovers Beach and the Arch. The sea lions are a neat thing to see. There were three ships in port, and that led to a lot of congestion in the high spots so we went out to sea further. It was very pretty. The beach is exactly like you see on TV. Very pretty with bars lining it. The Office, where we ate, had great food (not cheap) and was classier than the other bars. It is a great place to go for chips, salsa, and guacamole and a margarita. The guac is GREAT! The bars on either side were having drinking games at noon and were amusing to watch.