Introduction: First of all, we would like to thank all of the Cruise Critic members who posted message threads & reviews on the Star. This board has given us much valuable information & tips that have helped make our cruise experience memorable... Here's our $0.02.
Us: We're in our mid 30s with 2 young children, ages 2 and 4. We have sailed 12+ cruises including Princess, Celebrity, Cunard, Premier, and RCI. This is our 4th NCL cruise. This is the second time we've brought the grandparents along, too.
General experience: Overall, we had a good experience. What impressed us the most was the cleanliness and the service on board. The ship was beautiful and very clean. Also, the hand sanitizers were available at pre-boarding and at the market buffet. This added a nice touch.
We thought that most of crew members worked very hard to try to make the cruise enjoyable for the passengers — even more so than Princess. For example, the assistant maitre d' at Versailles (Jose) went out of his way to get soy milk for our children (and he would seek us out at every meal subsequently). One waiter at the Market Cafe went searching in the back at 9:30 p.m. for cookies for our 2-year-old daughter to make her happy. (Tip: cookies & desserts are available free of charge at Java Cafe in Deck 7 after 11 a.m.) Another waitress (Mariana) would greet the children on a first name basis and entertained them whenever she saw them.
The grandparents really enjoyed the Freestyle cruising concept. They thought it worked well & was less stressful to get the entire family together without the time or location constraints. At the same time, they felt there were more options for dining & entertainment if the group wanted to split up. The kids just enjoyed getting all of the attention from the cruise staff and fellow passengers.
Embarkation: Fast & fairly smooth. Get there EARLY (~11 a.m.), but not too early because porters won't take your bags before that time. Parking was only $11/day and was fenced and secured across the entrance. We had the option of doing Park&Stay at the Sheraton, but is was totally unsecured and no guards were posted (not a nice neighborhood).
It was a no brainer to pick the Latitudes check-in station, given that there was no line. We did have to a wait a little bit for security checks for our carry on luggage. They gave us a number & refreshments (juice or water — NO COOKIES!) and had us sit down & relax until our number was called (~15 minutes).
Cabins: The inside cabin felt surprisingly larger than previous cruises. The styling was good and we had plenty of closet space. They had hand-held showers (BIG PLUS with children). Though NCL didn't skimp on the cabin furnishings, we did note that liquid shampoo and soap in dispensers were used instead of the traditional bars. One touch that we really liked was that the 3rd bed is a trundle and essentially makes a super king sized bed for the four of us. This, however, could be a negative if you don't want someone sliding onto your twin bed at night. We ended up not using the quad bed that was the bunk because it was so much more convenient having 1 adult handle each child at night. Overall, we really loved how that worked out.
Food: Though mostly good, we all noted that NCL is not Celebrity cuisine. Our opinions varied on what was considered acceptable dining experiences. The grandparents were usually content eating at Market Cafe for breakfast & lunch and eating at the no fee restaurants for dinner. The kids LOVED the Kid Cafe section of the Market Cafe. We thought that the cover charges at the restaurants were worth the additional cost and frequented several of them, including: Ginza, Le Bistro and Cagney's.
Some Food Tips and 20/20 hindsight: 1. The 2nd night (1st day at sea) was 1/2 off Ginza & Soho. Also, sushi was all you can eat for $5 and it was $2 lobster tail night at all specialty restaurants. We took advantage & ate at Ginza. It was excellent. Their version of Peking Duck was awesome. The 3 way Asian pork was nice & represented Chinese, Japanese & Thai cuisine, each individually plated. We also liked their thai banana pancakes. 2. Fourth night (Acapulco night) was 1/2 off Ginza, Soho, & Le Bistro. We missed this bargain for Le Bistro by one day. Le Bistro was worth every penny. Filet was excellent, better than the filet in the main dining room later in the week (Cabos night). The chocolate fondue was to die for. They served more fruits with it than even the Melting Pot. 3. The 2 main dining rooms Aqua & Versailles have the same dinner menu for appetizer, soup, salad. The entrees at each restaurant were slight variations of the same type of meat. For example, on Caribbean night, Versailles had a pork roast vs Aqua had jerk pork. On another night, Versailles had fillet mignon & Aqua had chautebriand. My suggestion is to go to the restaurant reservation desk in Deck 7 (atrium) and look over the daily dinner menus for both dining rooms and compare the entrees. 4. Blue Lagoon Cafe (not advertised in the Dailys as much) on Deck 7 is open 24 hours and serves consistently piping hot food. Dishes included buffalo wings (Okay), wonton soup (Good), burger, fish 'n chips, potato skins, shepherd's pie, mac 'n cheese, chicken nuggets, fried rice, stir fry noodles. You can also order take out. We did a few take outs and ate at Market Cafe with the grandparents on days when we didn't care for the lunch buffet. 5. The wife survived eating at regular buffet (Market Cafe) during lunchtime by going to the vegetarian buffet section (starboard aft) where they had pretty good lentil curry and delicious bread pudding. The husband thought the vegetarian buffet was a very nice touch by NCL and brought expanded variety. 6. We recommend eating at La Trattoria on Acapulco night. We had a beautiful view of the fortress and the city. Food was about the same quality as the main dining room.
Children and dining: We utilized the kid's cafe every day. Much more comfortable setting for the little ones and they loved climbing over the soft cube seats. Plus, given that this was a designated kid area, we felt perfectly fine letting the kids wander and be kids instead of constantly having them strictly mind their manners as would be in the dining rooms. The kid buffet was mostly hot dogs, chicken dinosaur shaped nuggets (a la Costco), and hamburgers. It was located very close to the buffet line and deck grill/sandwich lines too. One note: JUICE. Only served in the mornings in the buffet (otherwise only in the main dining rooms), so bring bottles to stock up on it and store in your decent sized cabin refrigerator for the day. They switched out the juice dispensers ~1100 a.m.
Daytime activities: In addition to the usual bingo, art auctions, pool parties, arts & crafts, shore excursion talks, etc, we found some stuff to do. 1. The lectures on Aztec civilization, Frieda Kahlo, & pirates by Gerald Roth, which were pretty good. 2. Trivia was available 1-3 times a day depending on whether or not you were at sea. One afternoon, they had "Live at Five" with Kieron & Cliff (cruise director & asst. cruise director), which was televised. 3. Sushi making demo & cooking demo by Chef Nilo, the head chef of the specialty restaurants. It's cool because you get a free sample of the dishes at the end. 4. They had a Super Bowl party, which was televised without commercials in the Spinnaker Lounge on a big projection TV. It was quite fun and well planned out. They had typical Super Bowl cuisine: nachos, Buffalo wings, egg rolls, and most importantly, free prizes & giveaways.
Kid's programs: cute thing they do is give cutie names to the counselors. Ladybug headed up the 2-5 age group and was wonderful. They had very active programs and flexed as the weather and timing allowed. Sessions lasted about 2-3 hours usually. Themes included under sea adventure, jungle time, un-birthday party, dance party, teddy bear picnic, Caribbean night, Martian madness, blues clues. Outside the programs, they particularly liked the kid's pool & the outside area located aft on Deck 12 (by the ice cream parlor!) and the Carousel bar because of the giant horses there. Deck 7 promenade was also a favorite as well as the atrium Deck 7 and 8.
Evening activities: were as follows, Day 1 -- Welcome aboard intro Show 9:45 p.m. -- Boring. Day 2 -- Music of the night (Andrew Lloyd Weber) 8 and 10 p.m. -- Good. Day 3 -- Magic show 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., Comedy show 8:45 & 10:45 p.m. -- Good. Day 4 -- Mexican folkloric show 8:30 & 10:00 p.m. -- Okay. Day 5 -- Cirque Pacific 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. -- V Good. Day 6 -- Eric Reid The man & his music 8:30 p.m. -- did not go. Day 7 -- It's fame 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. Comedy showtime 8:45 & 10:45 p.m. --Good. Day 8 -- Jeffrey Allen & his tribute to Elton John 8:00 p.m. -- V Good.
As usual, the Jean Ann Ryan Company was impressive. They put out 3 shows during the cruise, which all 3 generations of us enjoyed. There was also lots of nightly entertainment afterward. These included a New Year's Eve party, '70s & '80s party, pub sing a long, the liar's club which we unfortunately were too tired to attend. Two little ones do wear you out.
Ports of call: We aren't shore excursion type people. The only thing noteworthy we did (in other words, more than just sightsee & shop) was go to CiCi Water Park in Acapulco. If you have kids, I highly recommend taking a taxi there ($20 round trip). The admission is 99 pesos ($9) for adults. The dolphin show is about one buck extra. It was fairly clean and came complete with water slides, private beach, a wave pool, large children's water playground and more.
Other last minute tips and recommendations: 1. The pictures in the photo gallery are expensive. $13 a picture. $19.99 for a formal portrait. Take advantage of the daily specials. One day, we got a free 2-picture frame for the formal shot. 2. Ice cream is free in the afternoons in Deck 12, by the children's pool area. 3. Look carefully at your gift shop receipt. I bought something on Day 2. The receipt said that if you bring it back on Friday (Day 5) you will get an additional 10% off any item. We missed it unfortunately. 4. Fellow Latitude members, make sure that you get a letter & an invitation in your cabin on the first day. Otherwise, stop by the main desk on day 1 or 2. There is a party in the afternoon on Day 3 of cruising. Free drinks & raffle prizes. Discounts on this cruise were not too impressive. 20% off "well brands" of drinks (whatever that means) at Spinnaker's, $20 off the Spa on port days, extra minutes at the internet cafe and 3 bonus cards for game 4 on every bingo session. 5. The chocoholic buffet is on Day 5 (Zihuatanejo) at 2 p.m. in the Versailles dining room. However, it is open earlier for picture taking. Get in line early to avoid the long line. Also, there is a station, where you can have a fruit kebob dipped in chocolate. This tasted exactly like the chocolate fondue at Le Bistro and was gratis.
Conclusion: We all had a fun and relaxing vacation. Our advice to future Star cruisers is to just go and have fun. It's a 90,000+ ton ship with over 10 places to eat & multiple things to do. If you are underwhelmed with something, for example a particular restaurant, try a different one. That is what Freestyle cruising is all about!!