An NCL e-mail offered a 7-day western Caribbean on the Norwegian Star out of Tampa for just over $400/pp. We had a week with nothing to do, so we signed up and drove to Tampa.
It wasn't a terrible week. It was just disappointing.
We think this was our 40th cruise, ranging in duration from a week to 54-days. So we really like cruising. Maybe it's laziness, but we like the idea of unpacking once and letting our hotel move from place to place. We like having somebody else cook for us and make the bed. And for this price, we could hardly stay home for the week.
First, maybe it's because they don't have a lot of traffic, but embarkation in Tampa was a mess. The escalators didn't work, so that meant either a long wait for "the" elevator at Pier 3, or bringing our luggage, which we'd packed to be carry-on, up some pretty long steps. At the top of the stairs, one agent told us to go one way, the next told us to go the other way. The person checking us in (we had everything in order and had done it online) took forever to locate the information. She took our picture for the keycards, but lost them in the system andhad to start over. By the way, a passenger who used the same facilities two weeks earlier reports the escalator wasn't working back then, either.
The Star was refurbished, we're told, in 2008. But she looks tired. The teak rails have bubbled varnish and discolorations. The desk and tables in our room had been banged around. I'm not queasy, but it was disgusting to see that the pillow case had big stains on it. And they were right where the steward should have noticed them.
We had been on the Norwegian Gem out of New York to Bermuda with our children and grandkids at the end of August. In spite of being delayed a day by hurricane Irena, it was a nice experience. The Star had the same restaurant selection-- two main dining rooms and 7 or 8 extra-charge specialty restaurants. Our meal in the french "Bistro," (horrible name, it's not a bistro at all) was quite good. On the family cruise, we had eaten in most of the other specialty restaurants, so our other six nights of this cruise were in the main dining rooms, the "Versailles" and the "Aqua." The menus night by night were the same we had experienced on the Gem.
So we could make a direct comparison, and the Star really suffered. I've been told that the key to ship food is the provisioner. There used to be an outfit our of Miami called "Apollo," and every cruise we took on which they had provisioned the ship was excellent. So maybe there's a problem with the quality of food being put aboard. But NCL can't get off the hook that easily, because the preparation was also pretty woeful compared to what we had experienced on their sister ship two months earlier. One of the starters at lunch was portabello mushroom with goat cheese. It was so good on the Gem that we ordered it eagerly. Big mistake. The mushroom cap had been left under the boiler until it was just a burned shell. The goat cheese on top was dried out. We thought it must have been a mistake, so we ordered it again a few days later. Same result. Seared sea trout was a sliver of fish an inch wide, three inches long and less than a quarter in thick. It may have been seared to start out with, but by the time it was served, it had been sitting somewhere under a cover and it got to the table tired and mushy. It was sitting in a huge pool of undistinguished sauce. I learned long ago to never order steak in a regular dining room. But prime rib can be pretty good. I had enjoyed the slab of beef I had on the Gem, but the Star produced a stringy quarter-inch thick slice. Taste was fine, but it wasn't the sort of entree that sends diners out praising the ship.
I really like the "freestyle" dining concept, and it worked well on the Star. We never had trouble getting a table, and the main dining room staff was efficient, if a little pressured. We ordered a bottle of wine each evening. That slows down the process a big, because there are no sommeliers and the waiter has to interupt his/her schedule to find, deliver and open the wine. In the old days, cruise dining featured a starter, soup, salad, entree and dessert. Today, there's a first course which could be any of the first three original courses. Add the main dish, coffee and dessert, and, even with waiting for wine, we were out of the dining room each night in an hour or just over. I think it's that efficiency that allows the "freestyle" concept to work. Maybe I'm just getting old, but I liked the more relaxed series of courses (and conversation) that used to be cruise dining...and still is on many other lines.
Credit where due: The entertainment offerings were really good. The three production show (including one featuring just the five women) were excellent. The final show, called "Elements" is not to be missed.
We have been to the ports of Roatan (Honduras), Belize City, Costa Maya and Cozumel many times, so we just wandered around. For people who have not visited them, Roatan has lovely beaches and good diving. Belize is near to interesting Mayan Ruins, as is Costa Maya. If you want an excellent beach and snorklin experience, with the added options of dolphin encounters, botanical gardens and food, grab a taxi in Cozumel and head for Chaakanab, which is a state-owned park. It's easy to get to, and you don't need a ship's excursion.
My main memory of this cruise is kind of sad. One evening, passengers were offered the opportunity to have photos taken with the Captain. Now in the old days, that was a big deal. Hundreds of photos of spruced-up passengers were sold by the ship's photographers. On this cruise, we happened to be walking through the atrium during the one hour the master of the vessel was available. And there he stood, a tall Greek fellow resplendent in his dark uniform. And all alone, as the passengers in flip-flops wandered by with their buckets of beer. Wondering, undoubtedly, just who he was.