Our group included 4 newbie cruisers and the veterans, my wife and I. We decided to get together to provide a cruise as a birthday gift for my 85 year old mother, and introduce my brother and sister in law, and my sister, to cruising.
The NCL Star was repositioning for the summer Alaska cruising season, with an itinerary I would not normally choose ... 4 days at sea and only 2 days in port. This less-than-ideal itinerary was exacerbated by the cooler weather expected in early May. These potential shortcomings were known, but the departure from a local port, and the slower pace of this cruise seemed appropriate for my mother (who needs a walker to get around).
Ship: 7 out of 10.
The Star is one of the oldest ships in the NCL fleet, built in 2001. She was supposed to undergo a refit in 2010, but I suspect that was a refit of the public areas only if it happened. While the public areas met our expectations of a NCL ship, the cabins showed their age; the upholstery was faded on the couches, the beds were the old style "hard" mattresses, and chipped paint and missing chunks of the balcony non-skid distracted from the experience. I was disappointed that the balcony glass was not cleaned prior to sailing, with notable water spots (this may have been a nod to our upcoming 3 days at sea, as they did clean the balconies in our first port).
The ship also has an older design, where some decks are interrupted by restaurants, and you have to go up or down a level to cross over them, then down or up again to resume your journey on that deck. But that being said, the ship is still in better shape than any of the Princess ships I've been on. (In this category, Disney is always the winner among the three cruise lines we’ve tried, with an attention to cleanliness unique among mass market cruise lines.)
Food: 9 out of 10.
Cruise food is often described as ranging from horrible to acceptable, but its obviously subjective. For my money, NCL has really outdone the rest of the mass-market cruise industry that we’ve tried. Every entree I had was very good, prepared as ordered, with acceptable presentation. Because of my diet, a modified Atkins-style diet, I was more limited in my choices. I enjoyed the omelets in the morning, along with fresh chilled melon, coffee and crisp bacon (one morning’s omelet was a 6 out of 10, as it was cooked just a bit too long). I ordered the NY Strip Steak several times for lunch, and had it prepared it differently (medium rare, medium), and each time the result was as ordered, and very good. Dinner saw good presentations of other entrees such as salmon (9/10), prime rib (9/10), and beef stroganoff (my brother said it was good, but alas, the noodles makes it incompatible with my diet).
I was interested to see how my brother and sister in law would react to the food, as they have wide experience both creating and enjoying different dishes. My brother recognized that its "resort food", created for a large customer base rather than cooked to order. But he and my sister in law were complimentary of the taste and substance of the dishes, with the occasional concern that some dishes were prepared with unorthodox ingredients (the hollandaise sauce on the eggs benedict included mustard, we think, making it yellow rather than cream white).
With few exceptions, everyone else found the food good to very good. A few entrees had either too much fat in the steak, or unexpected ingredients as noted above. Our foray into the highest rated specialty restaurant, Cagney’s Steakhouse, disappointed: our expectations were set high for a "premium experience", but it was not far enough above the usual main dining room experience to be a good value. As an example, the filet mignon I had was very tender, prepared exactly as ordered, and tasty. But it was on a level of an Outback Steakhouse entree rather than the lofty heights of a Ruth’s Chris entree. (My wife and I enjoyed Cagney’s for breakfast and lunch on our Euro cruise as part of our suite package, and liked it very much then; we may have hit them on an off night.)
Because of the cool weather, the outdoor dining options were not available, and there were times when our group could not be seated immediately in the main dining rooms. I timed the wait times, and we never waited more than 20 minutes for a table.
I would rate the food on the other lines we have tried this way: Princess 3/10 and Disney 6/10. NCL wins hand’s down in this department in my opinion. (The exception: Disney’s Palo specialty restaurant, which served the best steak I have ever eaten, and a best-ever chocolate soufflé.)
Entertainment: 5 out of 10.
Cruise lines have three types of stage entertainment; in-house productions, contract productions and specialty acts (magicians, comedians, etc.) Most of the time it is simply awful, on the level of theme park entertainment. On this cruise, the Star had a contract production called "Extreme Vegas", featuring a husband and wife team that performed magic acts, quick change costumes, acrobatics and self-promotion for their DVD. It was enjoyable, but marred by a pulsing, pounding intro sound track that went on far too long. On its own, I would rate this as a 5/10, a high score for cruise line entertainment.
The in-house production on the first night appeared to be similar to the awful show we dubbed the "Mormon Tabernacle Choir Gets Down and Funky with Motown" on our last NCL cruise, so we skipped it ... and conversations with fellow passengers told us we did the right thing. Everyone we talked to either hated it or walked out on it. I can’t give it a score, of course, but I can say that I'm glad we missed it.
A contract comedy troupe from Second City was horrible, a 1 out of 10, for poorly timed and excruciatingly bad comedy skits and all-to-predictable improv. We walked out on their show after suffering far too long, and I hope these folks go back to bussing tables for a living. Or get thrown overboard and eaten by sharks. The awful performances were doubly bad since the usual stand up comedian was missing from the entertainment line-up because of them. Usually the stand ups are at least a little bit funny.
The in-house "Elements" stage show was nice, a 4 out of 10, with pretty enjoyable routines. It was marred by a change in the sound system that make the music tinny and raspy, like they had blown out speakers (or tomatoes were stuck in them from the prior night’s Second City performance). The show featured two couples including the one from "Extreme Vegas", as well as the in-house entertainers. I never felt like retching or running for the exits, so for a cruise line show, it was pretty good.
The final production was a crew talent show, featuring only members of the crew from the housekeeping, restaurant, guest services and engineering departments. As can be expected, the show has acts of varying polish, but that’s the appeal: these are not professionals, but room stewards, waitresses and even the ship’s fireman. I enjoyed this show most of all,and give it a 6 out of 10 for pure entertainment value. It was surprising to see these workers belt out diva-esque tunes, perform traditional folk dances from their home countries and work together for comedy dance routines.
Itinerary: 7/10 for our group; 4/10 overall
For our group of first time cruisers, the itinerary with more sea days than port days allowed them to get a feel for cruising without too much distraction. But my wife and I prefer port-intensive cruises, and realized that without the rest of the family there, the three sea days would have been pretty boring. Especially when combined with the poor entertainment options and the colder weather that kept most people inside the ship. The weather also limited night-time outdoor options (midnight buffet, BBQs, dance parties under the stars, etc.) But a 7 out of 10 for a group cruise seems appropriate, as the extra time allowed us to meet for nearly every meal and enjoy some quality family time.
Ports visited were Juneau and Ketchikan, and our excursions were arranged separately, as NCL was late in getting excursions scheduled for this trip. For Juneau, we visited the Mendenhall Glacier ($16 per person for round trip bus fare). We chose a Duck Boat tour of Ketchikan as a starter, then each couple went "on their own" to explore the town. We all enjoyed the ports. Because we had limited activity due to a disabled member of our party, we did not seek out more the more adventuresome activities available in these ports.
We attended the Cruise Critic Roll Call meeting on board, and had the option to sign up for a tour of the bridge. That was a nice perk, and we enjoyed the time given the group by the Captain, first mate, and the rest of the officers on the bridge. While I didn't time the visit, they were generous with their time, and answered several questions. This was very nice, indeed.
Overall, this was a good introduction to cruising for the newbies, and enjoyable for us (hey, we weren't at work!) Freestyle dining fits well with our group, allowing us to modify our schedule at the last minute to accommodate anyone in the group, and still eat together.