SUMMARY: Great itinerary at a great time of the year. The full transit of the Panama Canal was obviously the highlight but each port had its own charm. The Norwegian Star was a beautiful ship and well laid out. Our cabin was perfectly located near the center of the ship on the 8th deck, right next to the Atrium. It was convenient to everything. The cabin was clean and functional. We went to every show and the entertainment was as good as we have seen on any cruise ship. The food was good. The buffet had variety, there was free popcorn in the Pub, ice cream was readily available, dinners were tasty and in the right portions, we had custom made omelets and waffles every day.
BACKGROUND: My wife and I are in our 60's. I am retired and my wife still works part-time. We are both physically active with no mobility issues. This was our 20th cruise, our 9th with Norwegian. This is our 1st cruise to the Panama Canal. We chose this cruise for the itinerary and the timing. This was the only Panama Canal cruise that provided a full transit and fit our work/holiday plans. We booked our cruise through a travel agent via the reverse auction web site, "cruisecompete.com."
GETTING THERE: As usual, we made our own airline reservations, arriving in Miami the day before the start of the cruise. We stayed at the LaQuinta Miami Airport North hotel. A free shuttle brought us from the airport to the hotel. It was no more than a 15 minute ride. Our room was large with a king size bed. The hotel is located in what appears to be a large industrial park. There was not much to see around the hotel but there were restaurants nearby. A Wendy's was on one side of the hotel and a Macdonald's on the other side with a Denny's next to that. The hotel made arrangements for a shuttle to bring us to the Port of Miami the next day. The shuttle cost $10 per person. After having the included continental breakfast at the hotel, we took the shuttle at 11 AM and arrived at the ship a half hour later.
EMBARKATION: From the time the porter took our bags till the time we were registered and walking on the ship was just about an hour. After lunch and a walk around the ship, we were in our cabin by 2 PM and had all our luggage by the 3:30 PM lifeboat drill where we not only did not have to wear our life jackets, we didn't even have to bring them to the drill.
THE CABIN: The cabin was quiet and well located on deck 8 near the middle of the ship, very close to the Atrium. Since my wife and I like to walk on the Promenade Deck every day, as well as sit on the deck to read, being one deck above the Promenade Deck was a real plus. We had an obstructed view cabin with a split window. One side was less obstructed than the other and provided a decent view. The cabin was kept clean and our steward was as unobtrusive as could be. We never saw him.
FOOD: Except for the last day when we were forced inside by the weather, we ate each breakfast at the buffet outside by the pool. This was the only place you could get fresh omelets and waffles made to order. Usually there was at most a short line. Usually at 8 AM there was no line at all. The food and service were always excellent. We always had lunch inside at the buffet. There was a good variety of food. We often tried the Indian and Asian foods that were offered. On cruises we love to eat foods that we don't usually have at home. Lunch was often the time for experimentation. Lunch was always concluded with an ice cream cone from the ice cream bar attached to the juice bar at the gym. There were always four flavors available. This was in addition to the soft serve ice cream in the dessert section of the buffet. For dinner we alternated between the two main dining rooms, the "Versailles" and "Aqua." The menus were the same. Usually there was a 10 to 15 minute wait at the Versailles. At Aqua, which opened a half hour later than Versailles, there was never a wait. We preferred Aqua because it was quieter and we usually sat at smaller tables which led to faster service. All but one of the dinner meals was good. The vegetarian dishes were especially well done. One night we ate at "Endless Summer", the tex-mex restaurant with a $10 per person extra charge. With dinner they gave us a free margarita. The food there was excellent. We made our same-day reservations at 12 noon for a 5:30 PM dinner. The service was quick and polite. Just about every night after the show we had free popcorn at the Red Lion Pub. The Pub was a great place to have beer and popcorn while watching football. Only one night were we tight for time. An hour and a half was almost always enough time to eat and make the show.
ENTERTAINMENT: We went to every show including the special afternoon shows (the Mexican Folklore Show was surprisingly good). The evening shows were all superb. There were several song and dance shows, a few stand-up comedians, some acrobats, a comedian juggler, and a Cirque Du Soleil type extravaganza. The Frankie Valli tribute show was a highlight. The "Skinny German Juggler" was also a standout. The Stardust Theater is as good a venue as any we have experienced on a cruise ship. It had stadium seating, no poles to block the sight lines and no drink tables. Every seat was a good seat. Usually we were about twenty minutes early for a show and that gave us great seats right in the middle of the theater. Even arriving minutes before the show gave us very good seats.
THE CRUISE DIRECTOR: The Cruise Director was named Sinan. It was his first cruise as a cruise director and it didn't show. He was fairly humorous and kept us informed of what was happening. He was ever-present and he did his job in a very outgoing and pleasing way.
THE PANAMA CANAL: Even though I have read both David McCulloch's "The Path Between The Seas" and Matthew Parker's "Panama Fever", the full transit through the Canal was interesting and educational. The "Agent" who gave commentary over the PA system was excellent. We could hear and understand everything he said. He had a lot of interesting facts to relate. Weather-wise we were lucky. The day of our passage was cloudy and rainy instead of the expected heat and humidity. It was comfortable to stay out on deck for the entire day. We moved between the top deck (right in front) as we went through the locks and the Promenade Deck as we went along Gatun Lake and through the Calubra Cut. Our passage was slightly delayed because the night before, for the first time in its history, the Canal was closed due to weather (extreme rain). Because of the delay we made our way out to the Pacific just after nightfall where the lights of the ships waiting to go through the Canal was a spectacular sight.
CARTAGENA: We hired a cab to take us to the "Old Town." It was a $20 cab fare which we split with another couple. We lucked out again with the weather. It was humid but cloudy which made it bearable to walk around the town. The "Old Town" was a disappointment. It was a bit shabby. There were police everywhere so it seemed safe. There were many aggressive street peddlers, even the cab drivers fought over us. Within 4 hours we saw all the sights and took a cab ride back to the ship dock where we had a couple of $2 Colombian beers before getting back on the ship.
PORTARENAS: Costa Rica is a very pretty country. We took a ship excursion called "Pacific Train, Bus and Boat." We rode a bus to the Tocales River where we got on a small boat. As we cruised down the river we got close to the crocodiles and watched the boat pilot get out and feed them. After the boat ride, we had some fresh fruit and the got back on the bus and saw more of the countryside. Next, we rode on an old fashioned train through some small villages. The people looked poor but seemed happy and were very friendly. Our guide explained the everyday life of the Costa Rica people as well as the history, culture and politics of the country. It was a worthwhile excursion.
HUATULCO: With another couple we hired a cab and for $10 per person we took an hour and a half tour of the surrounding area. We saw scenic overlooks, beautiful bays, fancy hotels and expensive houses. After the tour we went swimming at a beach right next to the cruise ship dock. For $10 per person we had a margarita along with the use of a chair and an umbrella on the beach.
ACAPULCO: We arranged for a private tour of the city with "Acapulco Rosie." She took us through the downtown streets to show us an outdoor market and explained life in Acapulco. We visited the Cathedral of Peace with its big cross on a hilltop, went to the other side of the bay for another scenic overlook, glanced at rich houses on the hillside, stopped at a historic hotel that was an old hangout for Hollywood stars and finished up with the cliff divers show. Despite all the recent bad publicity, we didn't feel threatened at all in Acapulco.
CABO SAN LUCAS: This was the only port where we tendered. The tendering process worked flawlessly. We got our tender number and were barely finished breakfast when our number was called. By 8 AM we were in Cabo. We walked around the dock area and the older section of the town. We ended up at the beach where again we had a margarita and watched the activity around the beach and the bay. We took a water taxi across the bay back to the tender dock where we did some shopping. We were back on the ship in time for lunch.
DISEMBARKATION: Disembarkation is the cruise line's last chance to disappoint you. NCL took full advantage. We followed the instructions perfectly and had to wait in line for an hour and 15 minutes for customs inspection. It was annoying. It should have run a little smoother. We did the "Easy Walkoff." We have done this many times before on NCL ships and this was our worst experience. Up to this point everything had run like clockwork on the part of NCL. Once we were off the ship we got a "Super Shuttle" to LAX for $20 per person (TIP included). With curbside check-in we were at our gate waiting for our plane by 10:30 AM.