A little background; I am 50, DH is 54. This was our 13th cruise, but first time on NCL. I have sailed on Princess (9), Hal, RCCL, & Carnival, and have enjoyed all of them.
We flew out of Washington, DC two days early to Seattle. The plan was to spend two nights in Seattle to see the sights and visit family, and then take the train (Amtrak) to Vancouver. For PAX flying from the USA to board a ship in Vancouver I have found it's usually cheaper to fly into Seattle and take the train or a bus to Vancouver then to fly to Vancouver. Also, while still not cheap, the hotels are usually less expensive in Seattle than staying overnight in Vancouver.
Seattle has a great mass transit system (Light rail, buses, and ferry) and it's very easy to get around, and a great city to tour as well. On the day of our cruise we boarded the train to Vancouver. Very comfortable even though we had to go coach as business class was sold out. If you plan on taking the train, check to see how many cruises are leaving that day. On the date of our sailing there were two other ships in port and the train had sold out. There is beautiful scenery as well, and the four hours passed very quickly. Then the fun began. They ran out of taxis at the train station, and all of the very friendly Canadian officials encouraged us to take the light rail to the cruise terminal as it was fast, easy, and cheap. Which it was. However, they sent us to the wrong cruise terminal! In the end we finally found a taxi driver who got us to the correct place and we boarded quickly.
We found our cabin with little difficulty (Deck 10 FWD). It was a little cramped, but okay for 2. It held 4, but I would hate to be one of 4 people sharing that small of a cabin! However, the bathroom was a good size with a shower you could actually turn around in. Later in the day we met our room steward who was charming and friendly and had our room cleaned quickly every morning, and had our bed turned down every evening-with a cute towel animal. While towel animals are of no importance to me, I made sure to make a fuss about how cute they were as I could see the effort he had made-They do take extra time, and they have lots of cabins to take care of. After dropping off our bags we went to the Market Cafe (Buffet) for lunch and was pleasantly surprised with the variety and quality of the food. Don't expect gourmet, but for a buffet pretty good. Then we set off to explore the ship. Overall I liked the Star; it was clean, and it's venues were spread out enough that it usually didn't get too crowded when the weather forced everyone indoors. I was eager to see the spa as I wanted to get the Thermal Suite Pass for the cruise duration. We did get the pass ($119pp), which I felt was a little high compared to thermal suite passes I have enjoyed on other ships (We spent $150 per couple on Princess & Holland America), but this was a little different as it did include the use of the indoor pool, and a hydrotherapy pool. It does not have heated tile chairs like Princess and HAL, but does have about 12 teak loungers that you can relax on with a great alf view. We used it every day, except one when the seas were so rough that they drained the pool, hot tub, and hydrotherapy pool. They only sell 100 passes, and acccording to the woman I spoke to they did not sell out on this cruise, which is unusal. If available they will sell a 1-day pass for $30, but never on a sea day.
I was curious about the freestyle concept, and found that most people enjoyed not having to dress up. I really liked the fact that no one looked down at you if you weren't dressed to their standards, but I didn't see anyone really abuse the relax dress code either. It may have been due to the PAX make-up. A great many of our fellow PAX were 60+ (Only 30 children ages 3-17 on board), most were from America, but not all. Many were from the west coast, and all that I spoke to were well traveled, with 10-30+ cruises under their belt.
Food-Always subjective, but I thought quite good for the most part. I do feel that NCL does try to get their guests to eat at one of the many specialty restaurants for which there is an extra charge. All breakfasts and most lunches we ate the Market Cafe (Buffet) and I always found the selection of foods to be good, but at dinner there was much less to choose from. It was if they were trying to steer you to a specialty, i.e. fee restaurant for dinner. We did eat at 2 of of the specialty restaurants; Endless Summer ($10pp) which serves Tex-Mex. We both had the beef burrito which was excellent. For dessert we tried ice cream with candied fruit and cornbread crumble on top that I wasn't quite sure if I liked, but couldn't stop eating (Guess I liked it), and another night we tried Ginza ($15pp) which serves Asian Fusion. This was really good as well I had Beef with Broccoli and DH had some kind of Lamb Chop dish that he said was excellent. When we went to one of the two main dining rooms (No fee) we went to Aqua, which was a little less formal than Versailles.
Entertainment-We saw three shows; "Band on the Run", a 70's disco song and dance production (Enjoyable), "Angels" (a pair of aerialists from France that were breathtaking), and "Elements" a show that combined dance, magic, and aerialists. I thought it was fantastic and the rest of the audience thought so as well as it received a standing ovation. A word to the wise. If you want to go to the early show you will need to get there probably about 45-minutes early if you want a good seat. We got there about 25-minutes before showtime and had to sit at the side where the view wasn't so good. I feel it would be worth the effort to go early.
Nanaimo-Here we took our only ship sponsored shore excursion; Alberni Valley Steam Train & Sawmill. It's a 1 1/2 hours bus ride, and they do spilt you into groups; some went on the train first, others to the sawmill first. We went to the sawmill, which was way more interesting than I thought it would be. They do serve a snack; soup (Most welcomed on a cold rainy day), sandwiches, and cookies. There is also a small gift shop on site. Then we got to go on the train ride which was a 35-minutes long; neat steam engine. Enjoyed the trip but the weather was not good; cool and rainy, but they were prepared at the sawmill with plenty of umbrellas that could be borrowed. When we got back to port the weather had cleared, so we explored the town. The tourism council of Nanaimo made a big impression with me as they were very helpful with maps and directions as well as suggestions for things to do (Quaint shops, and an attractive waterfront). They also had a free shuttle, with 4 stops that ran every 5-minutes or so.
Victoria-The weather was so bad; cool/cold (About 48 degrees) gusty wind (40-50 miles per hour), driving rain=misery. We were told there was a free shuttle into town, but when we got on the "free" shuttle it turn out there was a $15 charge per couple round trip. It made one stop; one side of the Empress Hotel, and ran about every 20-minutes. There is a Welcome/Tourism center right across the street, but we didn't find it very useful. We walked around a bit, and went to Hyde Park, which is very lovely. In fact there are beautiful gardens large and small all around Victoria. We did go into the Empress Hotel to see about having tea in their famous tea room, which I wasn't sure if they would even let us in due to our bedraggled state, but the price ($58pp) stopped us cold. I know it's world famous, but $58 for a cup of tea and a few finger sandwiches and scones? Too rich for my blood. At the Victoria Hotel about a block away High Tea is about half that, and several B&B offer it for even less. We walked into several shops, but everything was beyond what I could afford, and the restaurants and pubs seemed a bit pricy as well. We got discouraged by the weather and how expensive the city was and went back to the ship. Next time I will do better research. I did hear that those who went to Burchart Gardens had a miserable time of it as well; just too cold, wet and windy.
Astoria, OR-Port closed due to weather-disappointing, but not NCL fault. I heard that 3/4 other ships were turned aways as well. Of course at 8AM we were still 93 natical miles from Astoria and had only managed to go about 130 in 15-hours since leaving Victoria so I don't think we would have made it even if the port had been opened.
San Francisco-Made the trip! While not perfect weather and least it was mostly clear. Very easy to do your own thing here as you can walk to Pier 39/Fisherman's Wharf and there are tour operators in droves all completing for your $$$. We took a 2-hour Sky-View tour with Grayline ($20pp) and rode on the upper level. We got to see most of the major sites; Chinatown, Alamo Square (Famous painted ladies), and of course the Golden Gate Bridge. This is not a hop on/off tour; we only stopped at the Golden Gate Bridge for 30 minutes, but it did give a good overview of the city, and our driver was most informative and entertaining. Back at Fisherman's Wharf we went to the Maritime Museum (Clean bathrooms), which costs $5pp to tour several historic ships and boats-good value. Then we got into line to ride a cable car. It's $6 one way, or $14 for an all day pass (Hop on/off) For DH it was a great thrill as he rode on the outside standing. I liked it too. At the end of the line we got back in line to go back to Fisherman's Wharf. We finally stopped for lunch at a place called Cioppino's and had their specialty; Cioppino ($19.95 for a small, $28.95 for a regular) Small was plenty for us. It was excellent; filled with shrimp, crab meat, mussels, clams, snapper, and calamari and served with sourdough bread. Not only was it delectable, it was visually appealing as well. Then we walked around and went into a few shops, and as the day was drawing to a close started to head back to the ship. We stopped at one more place; Trish's Mini Donuts, and bought a small bag (6 mini donuts about $2.50) and started to walk away. We each took a bite, turned around and got back into line to buy 12 more. They are that yummy! Hot, fresh, they taste a little like funnel cake.
I would have loved to have spent more time in San Francisco, but two things shortened our stay. First, because we missed Astoria, San Francisco became our re-entry into the USA. Even though the day before they made a number of announcements that no one; US Citizen or not would be allowed off the ship until EVERYONE went through immigration, apparently some felt the rules did not apply to them. After most of the PAX had gone through they kept calling for 14 people that hadn't shown up. Over and over they kept calling for those names. They did finally allow those on ship sponsored shore excursions to leave the ship, but the rest of us were held virtually prisoner. When they did finally allow the rest of us off it was nearly 10 AM, two hours later than originally planned. Then we were told to be back at 7:30 for the ship was leaving at 8:00PM, but our itinerary at the start of our cruise said we were leaving at 10PM. No explantion for this early departure was ever given that I was aware of.
We ended up with 3 sea days, instead of 2 because of the missed port, which was too many for a 7-day cruise. Especially since the weather was not conclusive to being outside for two of them. They do try to fill the days; they have cards and board games set up, they try to entice you to the casino, spa, wine/beer tastings (Which have an extra charge), and show movies-the same ones they were playing on your stateroom TV 1-2 days before, but in the end I found the sea days, which I normally enjoy in moderation, weary.
Overall I liked NCL; Loved the freestyle concept, the crew was very friendly and we received great service (They are very good at clearing away used dishes and wiping down tables in the buffet-other cruise lines could take lessons from them in this regard). The shows we saw were entertaining. My few dislikes were the never ending announcements and our bed which was like sleeping on a bag of rocks; hard & lumpy. I will give NCL another go if the itinerary (We are eyeing a 10-day Canada/New England) and price were right.