NCL seemed like a great, low-price alternative to us, so we had high hopes. Boy, were we wrong.
I kept a daily log for the first 4 days, so the last part of my review will be purely from memory (although it's fresh in my mind as we returned home yesterday).
Note that with a 4-year-old, we stick to more basic aspects of a cruise and don't do a lot of the activities (although while looking at the dailies, there didn't seem to be as many activities on board as RCI).
Also, my spouse has Dystonia and must walk with a cane and leg brace.
Day 1—Embarkation at San Pedro and off to sea.
We arrived at the terminal in time for the doors to open. Things started off with particularly poor communication at the terminal. We were directed to a different line than other passengers. We are assuming that that it was because of my spouse's disability, but were not told why. Shortly after, we realized that we were directed to the incorrect part of the line. Then we were called up to the counter. The NCL rep struggled for 15 minutes trying to log in to his computer while we stood there staring at each other.
After he checked us in and gave us our key cards, we were directed to a small set of chairs, again separate from where other passengers were sent and we weren't told why. We sat there for a few minutes and surveyed our surroundings, and realized we'd embark via an elevator rather than a gangplank. There was no organization of that area. People just stood and sat around in a big herd and no line was set up, so obviously no one was told what to expect.
Unfortunately, we realized later that evening that taking the elevator meant no chance of an embarkation photo. Sorry disabled people...no photos for you!
To avoid the typical buffet chaos on embarkation day, we went to Versailles for lunch. I ordered a salmon and shrimp sandwich that was horrible. I left half of it on the plate because the consistency was horrible and the salmon completely over-powered the shrimp. My daughter had chicken tenders that she ate maybe half of because she didn't like them.
Today, and throughout the entire cruise, we were not asked if we wanted anything to drink (coffee, tea, etc.) other than water (I think we were asked maybe 3 times on the entire 7-day cruise). The service was slow and practically nonexistent. We had to ask over and over for things that should have been provided and we felt generally ignored.
After lunch, we walked around to kill time until the cabin was ready. It seemed that everywhere we walked the "automatic" doors had no power. None of the doors were working except the manual doors.
Finally we made it to our balcony cabin, which was pretty standard, but not bad. We did like the bathroom set up as it was much more efficient and larger than the bathroom in our RCI balcony cabin a year prior (on Radiance). The balcony was a bit of a disappointment compared to RCI. Although it was more private, it felt much more closed in and did not afford the expansive view that we had enjoyed on RCI. The bed, however, was hard as a rock. And my daughter's pullout was even harder. I laid down on her bed and commented it felt like sleeping on a slab of granite.
After a bad experience at Versailles for lunch, we decided to try the Market Cafe (buffet) for dinner. Bad choice. It was horrible. The food was no good and it was cold. My best assessment is that Hometown Buffet seems gourmet compared to Market Cafe. The selection was unimpressive and the desserts were dry and bland. And as a result, I didn't eat much of it.
I was beginning to think that this would be the first cruise on which I would actually LOSE weight. We decided that room service for breakfast the next morning would be the best choice.
We thought we'd cut the crew some slack because it was the first day (which often has a few kinks to work out), but things didn't improve much.
Recurring themes: Bad communication, no organization, bad food, bad service.
Day 2—Sea Day.
The sea was calm and we woke up about 30 minutes prior to our breakfast delivery. When it arrived, it was sufficient (we kept the order simple—fruit, sweet rolls, yogurt, etc. to avoid another culinary disaster). We really enjoyed hanging out on the balcony, had a leisurely morning.
My daughter was excited about the Kids' Club, so we decided to check it out. The room that her age group was in looked small, but the kids seemed content. It was our first time leaving her in such a place, so I was a bit nervous. We had read that they give you a pager in case your child needs assistance, but that wasn't the case. So, we decided to drop her off and check back in 30 minutes.
But how should we kill our 30 minutes? We walked around and explored the ship and settled near the pool. We needed water so we ran into the buffet and get some. Bad choice. They were out of water cups. There were none to be found on that side of the buffet (two drink stations). So, we decided to walk to the Java Cafe. Bad choice. We were told that they didn't have ice water. We would have to buy a bottle. Really? You can't get ice water at a coffee place? Don't they use water in the coffee-making process?
We were a bit hungry and wanted a pastry to share, but as we were waiting in line, they removed them from the case. Just whisked them away, and replaced them with pound cake. What? Where were they doing with the pastries? We reluctantly ordered some pound cake, which was irretrievably dry, and continued our quest for water.
We finally decided that going to lunch was the only way we'd get ice water. So, we picked up our daughter and went to Versailles (giving them the benefit of the doubt and not wanting to be subjected to the buffet again).
Bad choice. The menu was the same as yesterday and the service was just as terrible. I also have to mention the curt demeanor of the hostess. To make things worse, my daughter ordered pepperoni pizza that arrived with oddly colored pepperoni. We didn't risk it and it was another plate of wasted (and horrible) food.
After lunch, our daughter wanted to try the kids' pool and water slide, so we did. The water slides were good, but there was no supervision and kids were walking UP the slides. There was major potential for injury. Even though the day was nice and warm, the kid's pool was really cold. There were also not many places to sit and supervise our daughter, so it wasn't the best situation.
One of the redeeming qualities (out of maybe 3 we found) was the ice cream bar near the kids' pool. The coconut ice cream was very good and we visited regularly throughout the cruise. My daughter even decided she'd give herself a daily ice cream quota. I think she was up to 5 scoops by the end of the cruise.
Okay, after all of that, I needed a drink to mellow the harsh reality that was our cruise so far. So, after reading a lot about the martini tasting on Cruise Critic, I decided to partake. Overall it was okay, but I expected to hear what the bartender was saying. He didn't use the mic. Also, some reviewers said that they were full-sized martinis (not that I wanted 5 full martinis). They were actually about 3 mouthfuls of martini each.
We obviously needed a change, so we went to Aqua for dinner. MUCH BETTER CHOICE. The food was pretty good and the service was 10 times better than Versailles.
After dinner we went to see Band on the Run. It was a decent show, but I felt it was not up to the standard already set by our RCI cruises.
Later, we ordered dessert via room service and shortly after my daughter got sick. Our steward (Alfi) was great about helping us clean up. Overall, he was good. He did a lot of things right, but often didn't leave enough towels (there were three of us in the cabin) and didn't leave clean coffee cups.
Recurring themes: Bad food at Versailles, Things closing or unavailable at inappropriate times, weird pepperoni, decent steward, good coconut ice cream.
Day 3—Cabo (first port day)
I probably should have spent even more time on the balcony than I did because the ocean view was the only redeeming quality thus far.
Having run out of options, we went back to the buffet for breakfast. Again, cold food, bad food. The chocolate croissants were good, but I can get similar quality at Costco. The eggs benedict were cold and slimy. The veggie omelet had no veggies (WTH?). The corned beef hash was cold and greasy. The biscuits for the biscuits and gravy were dry and hard.
We went back to the cabin for lunch and to prepare for our tender into Cabo. My turkey sandwich was bland and had no extra condiments (no mayo or mustard?). The Greek salad was also bland (and I don't ever add salt to anything). I'm not sure what happened, but this was the first room service disappointment.
Unfortunately for us, this was the first time I really examined our excursion tickets. We signed up weeks before online for the dolphin encounter and were looking forward to going as a family. After looking at the descriptions, it seemed that our 4-year-old needed an adult in the water with her. But, all of the tickets said "child" on them. So, I headed down to the shore excursion desk to straighten things out.
I was told that the dolphin kids program was for kids only and that my daughter had to be 5 years old to do the other encounter with adults. So, it was impossible for us to do the excursion as a family.
I was upset because the description made it sound like they expected an adult in the water. Even if we wanted to do the adult program, it was too late and everything was booked up. The adults in our group were out of luck.
Really? NCL needs to either fix their excursion descriptions or make their web site intelligent enough to validate passenger ages against excursion age restrictions (it's not that difficult to write that code if you hire programmers that have basic skills).
Tendering in was a bit of a challenge for my spouse due to the steep stairs and the bouncy tender. But, we expected it because we've tendered before. We felt bad for the people in wheel chairs, as it seemed they had no option to get ashore and were stuck on the ship.
We've been to Cabo before and enjoyed it, but because of the dolphin excursion, we poked around the marina awhile. We looked through the shops and bought some vanilla. Eventually we went to a restaurant, ordered drinks, and people watched. But, the waiter seemed a bit annoyed that we didn't order food.
Note to self, tells your child not to accept things from strangers while in port. It was a minor inconvenience, but a clown handed my daughter a balloon animal, so I was obligated to pony up some green.
We also got a minor shake down from the mariachi band at the restaurant. They performed a single song and complained about the tip I gave them. Honestly, I know it's part of the experience, but we'd been in Cabo before with our daughter and I didn't ask them to sing. So, when I did give them something, they should have just moved on and not complained.
Overall Cabo was beautiful and we thoroughly enjoyed it again. The weather was much more comfortable than what we encountered in November 2009. My daughter's dolphin experience was very memorable and I'm so glad she got to do it, even if we didn't.
She actually rode on the dolphin's belly in a small circle in the pool and the smile on her face was worth every penny. My only criticism is that when my daughter was a bit tentative, she kind of wandered toward the deck, but the trainer and photographer seemed more interested in taking pictures than making sure that everyone was engaged.
For those who are interested in the facilities, etc. it was very nice. They provided wet suits, life jackets, and towels. They also provided secure lockers and an outdoor shower near the dolphin pool. You cannot wear sunscreen due to its affect on the dolphins, so they take you to the shower before and after. The picture CD for 1 person was $99. Well worth the money though.
We tendered back to the ship around 4:30pm and cleaned up for dinner at Aqua, our only dining respite. Dinner tonight would be the best we'd have during the cruise. We started with the pumpkin ginger and crab soup and it was delicious. We couldn't decide between the Beef Wellington and the lobster so we asked if we could get a lobster tail on the side. We were told that they plate everything the same way and can't put things on the side, so they brought us 2 entrees. They were very good. The portions were small, which I actually appreciated.
Next it was off to the Extreme Las Vegas show for the early showing. It was definitely the best show of the cruise and my daughter was mesmerized. Very entertaining. The only issues my daughter had were how loud it was (note to self, bring the ear plugs next time) and the "nightmare" sequence at the end that kind of scared her. I think the final trick malfunctioned because I didn't see the result, and neither did my spouse. Still it was a very good show.
Awhile after the show we looked for some dessert. No such luck. Everything was closed or gone. We finally settled for some fruit that we found in the pool area.
Overall, the day was better (even with the dolphin fiasco that excluded 2 of us).
Recurring themes: Poor communication (dolphin fiasco), bad food (buffet and room service), things closing or unavailable at inappropriate times, good coconut ice cream, Aqua lives up to our expectations.
Day 4—Cabo (second port day)
Breakfast on the balcony again. Today we stayed on the ship. Our daughter played in the pool, ate ice cream, and generally had a good time.
Lunch was at the buffet, yuck. But at least we can pick our poison (not as true of Versailles).
We played Wii bowling in the Red Lion with some other passengers and had a bit of fun. Our daughter (who I think started using my character) won the game. She had a couple strikes toward the end.
I was in desperate need of knowing where the LA Kings finished in the standings, so I went to the Internet cafe. Wow, that's a slow connection. I tried to keep it as brief as possible. Overall, it wasn't as bad as anticipated (at 75 cents per minute and a $3.95 activation fee). I spent $6.90. But, I went directly to the page I needed and got off as soon as possible.
After sail-away our daughter went to Kids Club and we played a small amount in the casino, which is off in a corner and very smoky.
We went to pick her up later and they couldn't find her. Most of the kids in her age group were watching How to Train Your Dragon. We stood there for 15 minutes while they "looked" for her. It was unsettling. Finally they looked around the jungle gym and found her.
Dinner was at Aqua and was good.
We didn't see Second City because it wasn't age-appropriate for our daughter. We had a nice stroll on deck and then went to the cabin for a kid-friendly movie on the iPad.
Recurring themes: Bad food (buffet), Aqua continues to perform.
Day 5—Puerto Vallarta
Room service for breakfast again. We kept it simple and hung out on the balcony. Had great views of the other ships in port.
Most of today was a bust, mainly because I didn't think we'd be doing much in Puerto Vallarta, and didn't do sufficient research.
We thought we could walk to town. Nope. We took off walking for about 2 miles down the road before we gave up. We considered a taxi at that point (and really should have gotten one), but we didn't know how far we were from the center of town and figured that if we hailed a cab, we'd pay a large sum to take us ¼ mile or less. We decided not to risk it and just turned back. We hit Walmart on the way back for a few things and then went back to the ship.
Lunch was the buffet again. We decided we'd stick to more simple things like sandwiches. I did try some of the Indian food, and it was generally not too bad. The only bright spot that we found was the pretzel bread sandwiches. Very good. I think I tried it with various cold cuts and once with chicken salad.
My daughter was crazy for the Kids' Cafe section of the buffet. Kids don't know any better, so maybe that's why it was kept up even less than the main buffet section. Things were often out stock and missing. Things that were actually there, tended to be dried out. For some reason, something simple like keeping milk cartons stocked was a challenge for the staff.
We poked around the ship for the rest of the day. Played some giant chess (well, as much as you can with a 4-year-old) and messed around with golf clubs at the driving cage. Got some ice cream too.
I was frustrated, so I decided to try the drink of the day (but I don't think the bartender made me the correct drink because it didn't resemble a Dark and Stormy). It was fruity and sweet, but not enough to elevate my mood.
Aqua for dinner again. There were no other choices really. We tended to get there when they open because kids eat early. Also, word seemed to spread that it was better than the other restaurants, so more people showed up as the cruise progressed. As a result, the lines became very long if you didn't get there early.
After dinner our daughter wasn't feeling well, so we didn't make it to the Shout show. We decided to watch a movie on the iPad and have an evening in, in the hope she'd feel better the next day.
We ordered cookies and milk from room service but when they didn't show up within an hour and a half, we called it a night and went to sleep.
Recurring themes: Good coconut ice cream, bad service, Aqua lives up to our expectations, no food when you want it.
Day 6—Sea Day
A rough and rocky start. The sea was rough and we were bouncing around all night. True, our cabin was forward, so we felt more motion, but it was also very rough midship.
Breakfast included the typical service and food we'd found at the buffet in days past. Only this time, the eggs at the Kids' Cafe were horribly undercooked and soupy. Same old, same old, in terms of food quality.
I finally decided to brave the omelet station line near the pool and was better off for it. It was cooked better and had more flavor. The line was long though because the cook ran out of items and had to flag someone down, ask for more ingredients, and then wait for the person to return.
After breakfast we spent more time at the kids' pool and walked around the ship some more. We couldn't in good conscience take our daughter back to Kids Club because she wasn't feeling 100% and we didn't want to pass it around if she was contagious.
We did, however, participate in the family cupcake decorating. She had a lot of fun with that. It was purely for entertainment value though because it was so dry that we couldn't eat it.
Later we went back to the cabin because I wasn't feeling well. It was a combination of the bumpy ride and the cigarette smoke in the pool area. It made me sick. Note that if you're a non-smoker, NCL doesn't have a great smoking policy. For those who live in California and aren't used to smoke, it's not a comfortable situation. On RCI there were designated smoking areas and people could not smoke in their cabins or on their balconies. Not so on NCL. They seem to be able to smoke anywhere outside, in the casino (which is expected), or in their cabin. My spouse was hit by a flying (and lit) cigarette butt while standing on our balcony because the moron next to us tossed it off his balcony and it landed right on her.
We decided to borrow a Yahtzee game and find a nice, smoke-free place and play. It was completely unattended by any staff. The library was packed, so we couldn't play there. Spinnaker's had a seminar going on, but we found a corner to sit. Then, we opened the game to find it was missing 3 dice. So much for that option!
For dinner we would ordinarily go to Aqua, but earlier in the week we made reservations for Ginza. Some people on Cruise Critic said the sushi was good and we desperately needed to escape the horrible food. So, we took a chance and paid our $15 per person cover charge. That was our biggest mistake yet.
We eat sushi all the time at home, so we know what to expect. The sushi on NCL Star was, in a word, disgusting. We started off with a few rolls (caterpillar, rainbow, and dynamite—which the waiter put on the ticket himself, but more about that in a minute). The only good thing about the caterpillar roll was the avocado. The rice was bland (usually sushi rice is a bit sweet); the fish was bland and mushy. They didn't even put eel sauce on the roll. I have never had a caterpillar roll without eel sauce.
The rainbow roll was equally as gross. Mushy fish and bland.
When we originally made our reservation, the woman said that we could have sushi or Asian fusion. When we arrived, our bizarre and flighty waiter gave us some song and dance about "I'll put the sushi on the child's ticket" (wink, wink) so that you only pay half for it. What? We were supposed to be able to order either anyway.
Then, when we started to order, he insisted on putting things on our ticket that we didn't want. We wanted a leisurely meal and he kept saying, "You have to order more." What's wrong with ordering a bit at a time like a normal sushi restaurant?
He insisted that we order a lot of stuff up front. He basically forced us to order from the Asian fusion menu as well. I just shrugged and ordered a couple things to make him leave. So, lo mein and Cantonese scallops were on the way as well.
We had to ask him 3 times for soy sauce and wasabi. After coming by with green tea and me telling him I didn't want any, he later came back and filled my teacup.
The manager came by to check on us. We were happy about that because this was the first time on the entire cruise that this had happened (on RCI it happened every meal at least once). I told her that the sushi was not good and she told me sushi on the ship was different than sushi on land. What? Sushi is sushi. Why should it be different? The chefs looked Japanese, but I suspect they flunked out of sushi chef school. Costco sushi was better than this crap.
The manager said perhaps we'd be happy with the Asian fusion menu. I mentioned we ordered some. Then, she went away.
Before the Asian fusion dishes arrived, I made the mistake of adding nigiri to the order. After all, Mr. Crazy Waiter kept coming back and telling us we had to order more.
The Asian fusion dishes came and...yuck. The lo mein was actually made with ramen noodles and bland as anything I've eaten. The scallops were rubbery and overcooked. We'd had enough and got up without waiting for dessert.
I stopped by the podium and told the manager my opinion of Asian fusion food. I said I was not happy and didn't know why I spent extra money for a meal that was worse than the buffet. Then the waiter came and asked me for my card so I could be charged. The manager just stood there, but then finally unenthusiastically apologized. She disappeared for a few minutes and then came back.
She gave me two options. She would either make a new reservation at a different specialty restaurant for me and comp a bottle of wine or she would charge me only one cover charge for the affront to Japanese cuisine we endured. For clarity, I asked if I had to pay a cover charge if we made a new reservation and she said "of course."
No thanks. I paid the $15 and left in disgust.
We intended to go to the show (Angels), but the sushi and the rough seas (but primarily the sushi) made us feel sick, so we went back to the cabin.
My spouse eventually wanted to check out the Chocoholic Buffet. I couldn't stomach the thought, so she and my daughter went there and brought back some things. I knew better than to try any of them by now.
She was very disappointed. What she brought back was not very tasty and most cakes were dry (the next day we noticed a lot of uneaten items from the buffet sitting on plates outside cabin doors). Many items weren't even chocolate, and though they attempted a decent presentation, it was quite unimpressive compared to RCI's Gala Buffet.
Recurring themes: HORRIBLE food, HORRIBLE service, enough smoke to make you gag, good coconut ice cream.
Day 7—Sea Day (last full day on ship)
Buffet for breakfast. Sticking to the only items that were semi-palatable. Then, walking around, more ice cream, more kiddie pool.
We went to the Kabana Jewelry Presentation just for the heck of it, knowing it was a sales pitch. We received raffle tickets and went to the jewelry store. Amazingly, I won the raffle prize of an "emerald" pendant. I use quotes because it looks more like jade. But, I was happy to win.
Lunch was at the Blue Lagoon. It was one of the few included restaurants we hadn't tried. We knew there was a limited menu, but went anyway. My daughter ordered chicken fingers and liked them. I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich and it was okay. But, it didn't come with any condiments, so I sat there for 5 minutes trying to find someone to bring me mayo while the sandwich grew cold.
We ordered the artichoke dip and it was okay (it was almost as good as the frozen TGI Friday's dip, but not quite). My spouse had fish and chips and they were generally okay. We ordered dessert. My pound cake was so dry I couldn't eat it. My spouse's cheesecake was pretty good, but she said it wasn't great.
We went to the Red Lion and played movie quote trivia. It was actually pretty fun and I came within 1 correct answer of winning. My daughter also liked the popcorn and ate it a couple times on the cruise.
Then, of course, we had ice cream and on to family pizza making. Initially there wasn't a good turnout, so we were the only ones there, but my daughter enjoyed the cupcake making so we stayed. My daughter put everything on her pizza, but when it came out of the oven, decided coloring was more fun than eating. I tried a bit and it was better than any of the pizza that my daughter had at any of the restaurants or buffet.
We poked around some more, walking inside the ship because it was so windy we couldn't walk comfortably on deck. Then, back to the cabin to get our daughter ready for casual portraits.
This would be her 4-year picture. The photographer started off with some brightly colored props that clashed with her outfit, so we asked if he could take pictures without props. He seemed to cop an attitude after that. So, what's the deal, we can't ask for one standing picture with no props?
We were a bit later than usual getting to Aqua because of the pictures. The line was wrapped all the way up the stairs and down the hallway on the deck above. While my family waited in line, I decided to get our bottle of wine opened at Gatsby's. At this point, I needed a glass of wine.
I sat there for probably 7 minutes while the waiters gabbed. Finally, one came over and asked if I wanted my bottle opened. She then asked if I wanted to taste it. I said, "I brought it. I know what it tastes like, so it's okay to just pour." Overall, she was pleasant, but certainly pokey.
We eventually got into Aqua and it is the best restaurant on the ship for service. We got out just in time to get a seat for Elements.
Elements was a good show, thanks to Justino. Overall, it was the second best show that we had seen on the ship. My daughter enjoyed the ballet portions, which was good because her cough prevented from going to the PJ Party at the Kids Club.
We went to Spinnaker's after and danced a bit. Then we went back to our bouncy room to pack and turn in for the night.
Recurring themes: Good coconut ice cream, bad service, bad food, Aqua lives up to our expectations, good family time with Kid's Crew, decent show.
Because we had a child and my spouse has a disability, we chose to disembark in the next-to-last group. We chose to check the baggage so we only had to deal with carry-on luggage.
We woke up early (probably 6am) because we were uncomfortable from the hard beds and felt a little icky from the rough ride. We stayed in the room for a couple hours and then got ready for breakfast.
After being up for awhile, I looked outside the door for our statement. No such luck. They said one would be delivered the night before, and of course, it wasn't. So, I had to get dressed and go down to Guest Services.
When I came back to the room, we finished packing our last items. The smell of fuel was heavy in the air (even with the balcony door shut) and we had to get out of our cabin or risk getting sick. Unfortunately, in our haste, we left behind the pink maracas that our daughter bought in Cabo.
We decided to check out the portraits from the night before and purchase one. The line was long and eventually we were done in the photo gallery.
Then we waded through the throng of people jamming up the hallways. Again, there was no organization. Crewmembers stood in hallways, but they weren't actively directing people.
We decided to have a leisurely breakfast to avoid the chaos of the buffet, but just as we arrived at Versailles, we were told that they were closed. It was only 8:30! Skunked again. Another issue with a closure just before we arrive. So, we reluctantly went to the buffet, which fulfilled our low expectations of being awful and crazy with people scurrying around.
On a side note, it seems to me that if you're working a line at a buffet, part of your job is getting rid of the old, dry, nasty food that should not be served. I guess that's not the case for NCL.
I had to ask (for the third day in a row) for a carton of milk for my daughter because she wanted. She barely ate breakfast this time. I guess the bad food can even try a child's patience.
We hung out for a while to kill time and then worked our way down to the Java Cafe. We could only find a seat on the steps (which was difficult for my spouse with the leg brace). Eventually were told to make our way to the line early. Ordinarily I'd say we chose that time for a reason, but given our trip, I was happy to get off the ship a few minutes early.
We left the ship, grabbed the hotel shuttle, and were on the road soon after, happy to put this vacation behind us.
Recurring themes: Bad service, bad organization, bad communication, places closing at inappropriate times, bad food.