This was a family reunion cruise reuniting me with my Mom, sisters, brother in law, aunt and other extended family that all live in Miami. We are all experienced cruisers and have all been on NCL before. We ranged in age from 42 to 78 and everything in between. Our departure city was Miami with stops in Cartagena, Colombia, Puntarenas, Costa Rica and Huatulco, Acapulco and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico with a full transit of the Panama Canal. Our cruise ended with our stop in LA. We had all booked this cruise back in 2009 and things had changed a bit for all us of financially so to put it mildly, we were on a budget, which we usually keep much less tightly. It is what it is, and regardless, we all felt blessed to be traveling and together, money be darned!
Embarkation: always a breeze in Miami...we were there early (11AM) and although there was a short black out of their computer services, we were on the ship by 12:30, just in time for lunch at the MDR...most in my group preferred the MDR to the buffet for breakfast and lunch (as well as dinner) so we had fun trying everything that would be on the menu everyday for us for the next 2 weeks...Lunch took a bit since many had multiple appetizers. Our luggage came quickly and muster drill was a breeze. We hit the pool deck for some pre-sail away fun and before you knew it, we were off.
Our Cabin: we got a "sideways" inside cabin which is configured a little differently than a standard inside...the cabin did seem a little roomier with this setup, with more room between the bed and the vanity/closet area...it was clean and our steward, Alex, was always present and willing to try to fulfill whatever needs we had. Plenty of storage space, even with 150 lbs of luggage and everything needed for a two weeks cruise for 2. Always love the NCL bathrooms and their shower doors.
Staff: One staff member was nicer than the next. We loved the cruise director, Sinan. Unfortunately, for the Star, our was Sinan's last cruise on her. We sailed with him on the Star to Alaska in 2007 and he is truly our favorite cruise director to date...love that laugh!
Dining: We love Freestyle and sail NCL often because of the relaxed dress code and the ability to eat when I want to as opposed to when I have to. Because of everyone's different palate and previous cruiseline experiences, I knew going into this that with a group as large as ours, we would not make everybody happy all of the time. We are surprised at how we all uniformly agreed for once and felt that for the most part, the food was very good. For breakfast, I found the same menu offered every day a bit limiting. Lunch was better; although the same menu was offered every day, there was always a chef's special or two to try, including a few new appetizers and desserts. We always ate early for dinner and would alternate between Aqua and Versailles. I preferred the ambiance at Aqua, I found the Versailles to be a little noisy. We were very happy with all the dining room food, most were pleased with the choices and always found something they enjoyed. I especially enjoyed prime rib night, lobster night, and all the wonderful lamb dishes. Our favorite dessert was the blueberry crumble. We also dined at the Blue Lagoon and the buffet on occasion, loved the wings at BL and loved the Indian food at the buffet, and of course, the pretzel rolls and the cheese plate. Dinner did have a tendency to run a long time, but that is to be expected with such a large group and so many courses. We liked the service in the Aqua better; it was less rushed and more intimate. Although service was consistent, there were always those who went above and beyond. I will say this, food temperature was always an issue, we did have to send soup and coffee back a few times, but when we specifically told our servers to make sure the items were hot, they always were. We also dined at Ginza, the Chinese specialty restaurant, and enjoyed a wonderful meal there with amazing service. Another member in our party enjoyed an evening at Le Bistro and was touched when the service staff had my brother in law sing let me call you sweetheart to my sister while celebrating their anniversary. Very sweet.
Entertainment: My mom loves the shows so we attended more than we usually do. Loved the Frankie Valle tribute, Elements, the Skinny German Juggler boy was just as funny as could be. The Second City show was newly cast so weren't on their A game, yet, but I always applaud the effort, imrprov is hard. We would hit Karaoke, Trivia, Will Sports and other stuff for fun...the cooking and dancing lessons were also fun. I always felt there was enough to do to stay busy. We participated in the Newly Wed Show and from then everybody on the ship knew my bra size...hey look who it is! It's 40 DD! LOL. Lots of fun to be had but not so much that you are left running from one side of the ship to the other trying to keep up. A nice balance.
Stops: I always love NCL because of their itineraries. I love that they make stops at relatively unknown ports while that are still undeveloped. I find NCL itineraries fresh and interesting and non repetitive... Our favorite stops were Costa Rica and Huatulco, although Cabo was just lovely...our least favorites were Cartagena and Acapulco. The transit through the Panama Canal was fascinating and should be on everyone's bucket list. We had a late breakfast in the Versailles and got a table at the very back of the ship as the last lock at Gatun was closing behind us and was an excellent vantage point. It is brutally hot in Panama and you are literally surrounded by the most beautiful jungle you can imagine. The lakes are mystical and misty with many many islands; just visually stunning. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. So, what do budget conscious vacationers do while in port, you ask? Well, I'll share...
In Cartagena, we took taxis to the Walled City and did a self guided walking tour. It was really hot and the hawkers were in heavy duty force. I hate to be hawked that heavily and was not enjoying the extreme humidity (95%) and since our time was rather limited in Cartagena, we took a taxi back to the ship and called it a day. Colombia was not the cleanest stop we've seen and there were many dirty sick dogs running around the streets.
In Costa Rica, we booked an independent tour with Enrique at Ricky Ricardo tours and had a lovely day traveling in our private van up and down the
countryside. He took us to a sugar cane farm where we were given a ginger and sugar cane drink that was delicious and to die for. We all took pics crushing the sugar cane. We also visited a spot with wild monkeys and my husband was able to give one a banana. We saw the crocodiles at the Tarcoles River and stopped for a seafood lunch at a deserted beach. We went wild macaw watching and spotted a beautiful macaw in a tree. He also took us to a local grocery store where we bought tons of fresh inexpensive local coffee. All this for $40 pp, plus what we ordered at lunch. I recommend Enrique for any of your needs while in Puntarenas. There is a really cute shopping area next to the pier where we picked up a few trinkets. Check out the feather art and all the beautiful textiles. Costa Rica is amazingly beautiful and lush and we would love to visit and spend more time exploring the eco tourism offered there.
In Huatulco, we took taxis to La Crucesita and visited the beautiful church. We loved the shopping in the area as it was much less expensive than anywhere else we visited in Mexico. Lots of nice silver and pottery shops. We also made it a beach day and hung out at the restaurant at the beach at the pier and had some amazing fish tacos and semi warm beer while taking a dip. The water was amazingly clear being so close to the ship and the pier. Huatulco was beautiful and we'd like to return for a lost weekend of relaxation and more semi warm beer, fish tacos and sun.
We had planned to see the Cliff Divers in Acapulco but my mom was having issues preventing her from climbing many stairs. We found walking around
Acapulco to be iffy, it was dirty, the hawkers were aggressive and we were tired. We hit the Fort across the street from the pier and were happy to get back on the ship.
In Cabo, we took a glass bottomed water taxi at the marina next to the pier for $10 each and took a boat tour of Lands End up close and personal. We did a little shopping and hopped on a bar stool for a few more warm ones and enjoyed our day in Cabo. We loved the inexpensive tour of Lands End and found it to be lovely and fun bouncing on the waves. We bought some really nice pottery pieces at a flea market set up under some tarp and were very happy. I'd like to check out Cabo again someday, I'd be willing to go back if research proves it much different from Cancun...we weren't big fans of Cancun, again, because of the hawking.
Everything else: We enjoyed the ratio of sea days to port days and never felt over tired from visiting too many ports too soon after another. We always felt relaxed and never hurried, which was just what we were looking for in our vacation. All in all it was a cruise of a lifetime; many wonderful memories were made with family and new friends. We truly enjoyed almost every aspect of the cruise except for minor flaws, here and there. Nothing is perfect, right? I did feel that NCL was constantly looking for ways to please the passengers and enhance the cruise experience for everyone, whether it was something that generated money for the cruise line or not...there were plenty of free activities offered for those on a budget like ourselves as well as many options on how to rack up your on board account. I like the choices...sometimes I am on a budget and sometimes less so...I want to be able to choose how and where I spend my cash, and that is one of the major reasons I cruise with NCL.
We did attend our Cruise Critic Meet and Greet and the Captain was there with a few officers. We all got special invitations for a bridge tour and it was a highlight of our time on the ship. I would never have guessed at how spacious and uncluttered the space was and laughed when someone asked what the giant hand was in the window...apparently it was spring loaded and waved at other ships. Very cool.
The only negative of the entire cruise was the deboarding process. We were called deck by deck if we were freestyle disembarking and there was no enforcement of the lines at all whatsoever and there were many who jumped the lines causing a many passenger confrontations. NCL really needs to look into this and correct it, it is a terrible way to end a cruise and it leaves a lasting negative impression.
All in all, we all had a lovely time and wish we could do it again. We are all big fans of cruises but feel that 7 days is just not enough but at first, 13 days seemed like an eternity to be away from children, jobs, businesses, pets, etc., but now, after being back at home for a bit and fully back to reality, it feels like it just zoomed by. A minimum 10 day cruise the next time around for us for sure!