Our family of five just completed our first cruise on the Norwegian Star to the "Mexican Riviera". We decided to book our cruise fairly late and ended up booking the Star, which was our second choice behind the Sapphire Princess. We preferred the Princess because it had better reviews than the NCL Star but were unable to book it due to the unavailability of three person cabins at the time, which we needed for our three kids (ages 17, 13 and 10). We had also considered but ruled out the Disney Wonder (too expensive), The Carnival Splendor (lower rated) and the Holland America Oosterdam (too formal and mature for families).
This first cruise was fun overall, and we enjoyed our family vacation. Looking back, most of the reviews we had read about the Star were accurate, and I am pretty sure we would have had a better experience on the Princess ship. NCL is leaving the Mexican Riviera and the Port of Los Angeles indefinitely in a couple weeks so this review may only be useful for the ship and crew, not the itineraries. Here is our take:
Somewhat chaotic, but went fairly quickly. We arrived at the terminal at 11:30am and were on board by about 12:15. It disturbed me that the baggage porters just piled everyone's luggage onto carts and whisked them away, without providing claim tags. The staterooms were not available until after 2:00 pm so we grabbed lunch at the buffet and camped out by the pool and biergarden until then. The bags didn't arrive until MUCH later that evening and not all at once. Some bags didn't arrive until well after dinner.
My wife and I had a mini suite balcony and our kids shared an inside cabin triple. We were fairly pleased with the size and layout of our mini suite. The dEcor was relatively tasteful and the bathroom was very good. The bed was pretty firm for my taste but my wife said it was very comfortable for her. The air conditioning worked well and was very quiet. We did not use the pull out couch as a bed but it was there in case we needed to isolate one of our kids from the other two. One complaint: the wood cabinets have a glossy finish that shows fingerprints clearly. I had to ask the steward to wipe them off because I was tired of staring at them.
Our kids did fairly well in their inside cabin considering its size. There seemed to be plenty of storage in both cabins.
This was the most consistently negative part of our whole cruise and served as a nagging reminder of how NCL was trying to weasel as much money from its guests as possible.
Soda: We purchased soda plans for four of us which cost a whopping $190. You'd think for that price, soda would be easily and readily available. Not so! In fact, they were so stingy with doling out their 8 oz solo cups of soda (filled with ice) that it became a running joke with my family. The first insult was having to pull out and show your room key sticker to prove your "worthiness" to receive such a precious commodity. The second insult was having to wait 10 to 15 minutes for your server to bring it. The final insult was the ridiculously puny size of the cup you get. I became so infuriated by this process that I instructed my kids to order a soda from every server that came by even if you didn't want one, since you could never tell if or when the next one would really arrive.
Alcohol: Clearly a huge profit center for NCL. Very expensive and with a 15% gratuity added on. You could get a "free" 6th beer if you ordered a bucket of five, but it grew tiresome and awkward to carry a bucket of beers around the ship (I was the only drinker), so I switched to margaritas after a while. Just as with the sodas, it became apparent that if you ordered from a waiter, it could be awhile before getting your beverage, so I quickly learned to avoid the waiters and go directly to the bar to get my drinks. The bartenders make your drinks right away and tend to pour more generously when you are watching them. I discovered that the bar on deck 8 overlooking the Grand Atrium only charged $6 for a large margarita while they were over $8 elsewhere on the ship.
I can't resist adding one more comment about tips. For a family of five I was obliged to spend $420 ($12 X 5 X 7days) in tips. When you buy drinks they tack another 15% additional tip on your bill. Then when you sign for your bill there is always a space to add an additional, third tip! Are you freakin' kidding me?
Food quality was fairly good on average. The one specialty restaurant (Ginza) we went to was very good. I wish we had tried the Bistro and Endless Summer but we never got around to it. We didn't feel that Cagneys was worth the extra money (we splurged on some great restaurants while on shore). We typically ate breakfast and lunch at the buffet and/or the poolside restaurant. Much of the food there was typical cafeteria food, but some standouts were the Indian dishes and the poolside hamburgers. I also liked the smoked salmon and pickled herring at breakfast. Bagels were conspicuously missing from breakfast for some reason. Dessert dishes were surprisingly bland.
As mentioned in previous reviews, food was good in Aqua and Versailles (no surcharge), but service was glacially slow. Serving sized were fairly small (good if you are trying to keep from gaining weight), but the appetizers were practically bite sized. We learned that it was ok to order more than one appetizer each.
We all felt these were consistently excellent, and we attended at least one show each night. We would typically go to the early show at the Stardust Theatre, then proceed to the Spinnaker Lounge for a later function/activity/game show. Our kids especially enjoyed the magician couple (Extreme Vegas), and the Comedy Hypnotist. My 13 yr old son convinced me to volunteer to be hypnotized, and I did some crazy things on stage that will be a funny memory for us to share for a long time. The acrobatic shows like Elements and the singing act Shout were also very good. I was very impressed by the production quality of the shows, but some veteran cruisers I talked to said that was pretty standard.
We signed our kids up to these programs as soon as we got on the ship to avoid long lines to register. Oddly enough, these clubs did not end up appealing to our kids and they ended up hanging out together or with us most of the time. Many had told us to expect the kids to disappear to hang out with their own but ours seemed to not be interested or had difficulty breaking the ice with the other kids. It's hard to predict how teens will adapt to social situations these days. It didn't help matters that our 10 yr old son was split off to the kid zone rather than teen club, so perhaps the older kids were circling the wagons to keep our youngest from being alone.
We did see groups of teens hanging out together, and they seemed to be having fun. They congregated in groups on the stairwells most nights (in everyone's way) and on the last night, the "drama" of saying goodbye was a spectacle to behold. My kids thought it was pathetic but at least it meant they made some good friends during the cruise.
Ports of Call/Shore Excursions
Since NCL is pulling out of LA and Mexican Riviera cruises I won't waste time on this subject except to say that it was ridiculous that while we were in Cabo San Lucas two days, they required us to be back on board the ship by 7 pm the first night. They said it was because they had to leave port, but it didn't take a stretch of the imagination to know why. It was clearly so they can get back into international waters to recapture all that profit by opening the casinos, duty free, booze sales and specialty restaurants. It would have been nice to be able to stay in Cabo for dinner/nightlife then get back to the ship. Of course there was the option of buying a couple of hotel rooms for the night in Cabo but I already paid for my hotel out there in the water.
My wife and I used the fitness center every day and it was very good, but crowded. There was a good variety of cardio machines that included TVs. The weight machines were adequate. Free weight and exercise mat area were good but also very crowded. (balancing on an exercise ball on a rocking ship is an interesting experience). I liked the cold wet towels, in a fridge near the life cycles. There is a fresh juice bar, but of course, the juice costs extra (with an additional gratuity I'm sure) so I didn't partake. The jogging track is great, but closed a couple of days due to high winds.
Chaos and long, long lines snaking double the length of the ship, over the gangway, back again two ship lengths through the terminal to customs. There was only 1 (one) NCL cruise representative (from Boston, can't recall his name) standing by to thank the guests and say goodbye. The wait to exit the parking lot was at least an hour long after that. If you park at the Port of LA, make sure you park near the exit not the ship. If you are parked near the ship you will be one of the last to leave the parking lot.
Things We Didn't Use/Do
Casino, Bingo, Shore Excursions, Internet, shuffleboard, sports deck, spa
Again, overall we really enjoyed our first cruise, but I am not sure how much of that should be credited to NCL. The best highlights were the shows/entertainment on the ship and our experiences while ashore. Most everything else seemed to be adequate compared to what I hear is available on other cruise lines. We do like the cruising experience, but would rather stay longer in port locations, so we may stick with traditional air/land based vacations for now. If we do decide on cruising again, we will probably opt for a different cruise line than NCL so that we can contrast and compare. I would jump at the chance to book a cruise that was truly all inclusive, where I was not pestered to keep coughing up more money and automatic tips for poor service. There are plenty of resorts that fit that bill, and I think we will try that next.