My partner and I took the 7-day cruise on Norwegian Caribbean Lines' "Norwegian Star" in early January 2003. This was our first cruise on NCL. The Star is an attractive new ship; we had a great time, and are glad we went. However, we probably won't be back on NCL anytime soon. Read on to see if this cruise is for you.
We're a gay couple from the West coast, both around 40 years old. We travel to relax first and to see new sights second. We've cruised on Celebrity, Princess, Royal Caribbean, and now Norwegian. We're both very partial to Celebrity, and I'll try to make comparisons when appropriate to help you understand where we're coming from. As I said, we had a great time, and the things that we did not enjoy might not matter to you. Everyone has different tastes, which is why there are different cruise lines.
I'll try to break this review up by subject, rather than a day-by-day description. First, the itinerary. As you should already be aware if you're considering this cruise, you shouldn't expect to get a real sense of the Hawaiian islands from this cruise. The port stops are even shorter than usual for a cruise, due to the need to sail 1,200 miles south to the Fanning Islands and back in order to comply with US shipping law. I understand that NCL is trying to get an exception from this law, which would significantly change the experience of this cruise. My partner and I particularly enjoy days at sea, so we didn't mind at all, but others complained about spending so much time in transit. Until the law changes, if you really want to see Hawaii, plan to spend some time in the islands before or after the cruise.
Pre-cruise: We arrived a day in advance, as is recommended for any cruise. There's a bus transfer from the airport to all Waikiki hotels for only $7 per person, which runs every half hour. A taxi to Waikiki would be about $35-40. Just walk across to the middle island from the baggage claim carousel, and ask one of the attendants. You can pay on the bus, and there's a savings of a dollar or so if you pay for a roundtrip. We used it at the beginning and the end, it was on time, and the drivers were both very professional and efficient. Plus, you get a little tour of Waikiki as they drop off other guests.
We stayed at the Marriott on Waikiki, which is almost at the far east end of the beach. We were there because my partner works for Marriott and could get a good deal, but it's actually a nice hotel in a good location. Because it's at the end of the "strip" the beach and the streets around it aren't as crowded as they are further west. It's only a block from a lovely park, which includes the Honolulu zoo, so it might be of special interest to families with children. There are several restaurants, including a roofdeck bar/restaurant overlooking the beach that had good live music. There are two pools and lots of sunning space. The hotel has two towers, and we were in the taller one set back behind the front one. It appears that the rear tower is actually newer and nicer and the upper level rooms all have balconies with views. We had a gorgeous view of Diamond Head from our room. We relaxed after our flight, walked along the beach as they lit the gas "tiki" torches, and had a cocktail while we watched the orange sunset. What a romantic welcome to Hawaii!
The next morning, we were up early due to the time difference, breakfasted on our balcony, and went to workout. There's a 24 Hour Fitness gym on the second story of a building overlooking the beach in the middle of the "strip". It's a great place to workout and watch the surf (and the passing crowds). I'm a member of the chain, but I think a day pass is $15, and less if your hotel has an arrangement with them.
Boarding: We figure that the ship is the main destination on a cruise, so we try to board as early as possible in order to check it out, have lunch, and be the first ones at the pool or reading a book on the promenade deck. We took a taxi to the terminal ($25 - it's not that close to Waikiki) and were at the terminal before noon. The baggage checkin was efficient, and the lines weren't too bad. After verifying our information and getting our cruise cards, we were up the escalator, had our picture taken and were on the gangway within half an hour of arriving. Comparison: Both NCL and Celebrity have special lines during check-in for their return guests, "Latitude" for NCL and "Captain's Club" for Celebrity. It makes a difference in speed and treatment on Celebrity. I couldn't tell whether the Latitude guests were moving faster, as there were so few of us checking in at the time.
Boarding the ship itself was our first introduction to NCL's inefficient people-moving process. I've read similar comments on other reviews, and we experienced it occasionally during our cruise. It appeared that no one was in charge, and after our cards were "swiped" on the computer we were standing in the lobby area for about ten minutes with a growing crowd. We were told someone would be coming to escort us, but I finally asked if we could just go on, as I knew where our cabins were. Comparison: Celebrity has white-gloved staff lined up waiting to escort you to the cabin. They take you all the way to the cabin and make sure your card works in the door.
Cabin: We had a handicapped balcony cabin on the 9th deck, port side, aft. Neither of us is handicapped, but we booked a balcony cabin only a few weeks before the cruise, and this is what we were assigned. When I realized what had happened, I talked to our travel agent because I didn't want to prevent someone who really needed the cabin from being able to reserve it. He laughed and just told us to enjoy it. When we walked in we understood what he meant: in order to accommodate wheelchair users, the handicapped cabins are larger than normal. The bathrooms are also much larger, and have a large shower. We ended up with a cabin the size of a mini-suite for the price of a normal outside cabin.
Like all the cabins on the Star, ours had nice, cherry-look paneling, matching furniture with metal legs which reminded me a lot of grade-school tables and chairs. Unlike most cruise ship cabins, the refrigerator and TV aren't built in, but are just stacked in a corner. The refrigerator was empty - whatever happened to the idea of a mini-bar? I thought they could make money that way, and also make it more convenient for guests. The desk, closet and shelves are built in. The bathroom had a sink rather than a vanity, although I don't know if that was only for our handicapped cabin. There were only a few narrow glass shelves. As a result, there weren't enough flat surfaces to put our things on, and we don't have THAT many toiletries! Also, a small point, but there were drinking glasses in the bathroom that don't fit the holders, so I was always afraid they'd end up falling on the tile floor and shattering. The carpet and bedspread are very bright colors, but otherwise it's a nicely decorated cabin. The balcony was wider than those of other cabins, to match the cabin, but no deeper. Still, it had two plastic chairs, one reclining, and a cocktail table. Comparison: Celebrity also uses a wood-look paneling in most of their cabins. The colors are generally more subtle, and there's more of a sense of finish, with a small loveseat in all cabins, glass cocktail table, and the TV and refrigerator are all built-in. Also, Celebrity provides terry cloth robes in all cabins, which I have never seen on other cruiselines. We had a bowl of fresh fruit and a nice bottle of wine from our travel agent - thanks Stan! (aka "Stan the Cruise Man")
DEcor: As I mentioned above, I think of the ship as the destination on a cruise, and the dEcor partly sets the tone for the week. Here, we found NCL Star was a little glitzier than our taste, but it was generally pretty well done. Probably the most garish area was the pool, with giant twin yellow plastic slides into the pool and towering green plastic palm trees that were lit from within at night. As I mentioned, the cabins have bright carpeting and bedspreads to offset wood paneling. The atrium lobby has a good deal of shiny brass and tracer lights, with marble floors and plants. Think of an upscale shopping mall. The theme restaurants are all decorated differently to correspond to their theme, and generally well done (more on the restaurants later). The stair wells had some interesting modern pieces in the landings and the use of wood paneling tied everything together pretty well. Probably the nicest space on the ship is the two-story Gatsby's lounge outside the Bistro and Soho specialty restaurants and below the Ginza restaurant: It had an art-deco theme, with a set of bronze panels depicting modes of travel through the ages, and several oversized deco-style paintings of cosmopolitan partiers. We usually ended up there every night for a drink and to listen to the piano player.
Restaurants: NCL has moved entirely to a dine-when-you-want-where you want policy they call "Freestyle Dining". On the Star, they have 10 places to dine, and we tried all of the nicer ones through the course of the week. My partner is vegetarian, and we're not burgers and fries-type people anyway, so we didn't try the poolside grill, the 50's diner style Blue Lagoon, or the Italian style La Trattoria, which is really a section of the buffet which is sectioned off at night and has red checkered tablecloths and candles. We also didn't try Ginza, since Japanese food seldom has vegetarian options, although the space looked very elegant and they were busy most nights. In general, we found the food was average to good, but the service was mostly just average. Several points: there are no sommeliers, except in the Bistro French restaurant. The wait staff doesn't appear to know wines at all, and we were reduced to giving the waiter the number off the wine list to get the wine we wanted. Also, the wait staff seemed to assume we were in a hurry, and kept our courses coming with no break. We figured this out after a couple of meals and learned to tell the waitperson as we were being seated that we prefer to linger and not to be rushed. We never had a problem getting a table for two in the non-reservation restaurants, even at peak times. The host would tell us there would be a 15 minute wait for two and would ask if we'd be willing to join others at a larger table. We'd decline and say we'd prefer to wait for a table for two, and we were then seated immediately. Now I'll give my impressions of the various restaurants in which we dined.
Market Cafe (Buffet) Deck 12 aft: We only ate in the buffet for lunch, so we can't speak to either breakfast or dinner service there. The buffet is large and has good traffic flow, with entrances from both the rear and mid-ship elevators. There is plenty of seating and we never had trouble finding a table near the floor to ceiling windows. There is a good variety of food, including salads, hot and cold dishes including fish and other "healthy" choices, but the deserts were a little lacking (think Jello) Celebrity has a variety of fresh pastries, along with cakes and pies. We were impressed to see that NCL had an entire section of the buffet that is vegetarian, with pastas, Indian dishes, and different steamed or grilled vegetables. My partner is vegetarian and we are happy if there are one or two choices. Here, they had a whole section. We also learned that it was easier to find a seat near the vegetarian section as most guests were going for the normal food. Comparison: NCL puts out food in big colored plastic bowls that look like Tupperware ® which weren't refilled right away. Celebrity uses polished stainless steel trays and bowls that are artfully garnished and are refreshed frequently. On NCL you picked up your own tray, cutlery, and a napkin; on Celebrity a waiter puts a linen cloth on a tray, with a roll of cutlery and a cloth napkin, and hands it to you. You get the idea.
Versailles Main Restaurant - Deck 6 aft: We ate in the Versailles for dinner on the first night of our cruise, once for lunch and for breakfast on two mornings. NCL was going for a pseudo-French look that could more easily be called English Country House, with wood paneling and fabric on the walls and gilt on the railings and the high ceiling. There were lots of tables for two and four. There are large windows in the back and in a portion of the sides. There are also raised areas with tables that allow diners seated in the middle to enjoy the views even though they're seated away from the windows. On the first night we asked to be seated in the back of the room right against the large windows overlooking the stern so we could see the sail-away. The rumble of the propellers and the movement as the ship pushes away is always a dramatic moment. Due to the waiter rushing dinner (see above) we were having desert and coffee before the ship had sailed, so we literally had to sip coffee for a half hour until we could watch Honolulu disappear in the distance. The wait was worth it for the view. The food was fine, well presented, but brought out too quickly by a waiter who was distracted. NCL always had one vegetarian option on all their restaurants' menus. Celebrity, by contrast, creates a separate vegetarian menu each night with several choices not on the main menu. We were impressed with breakfast the two days we ate in Versailles: a wide variety of choices served well. Breakfast is a meal that I don't mind having served quickly! The breakfast waitstaff was also very good about refreshing coffee and juice, and offering more toast. A design note: there's no where to stand when you're waiting to be seated in the Versailles, as the hostess stand is on the landing in the middle of a flight of stairs. People were sometimes backed up the stairs, holding the railings as the ship moved, which was probably not comfortable for the many older people on board.
Aqua Main Restaurant - Deck 6 midship: The other main no-reservation restaurant seemed to have the same menu as Versailles, but was contemporary in design. Unfortunately, it's a large, low-ceiling room and the predominant color is white, so it can feel a little institutional. Still, we ate dinner there twice. Design note: there's a large window into the kitchen, which in many restaurants we've been in is used to display the chefs at work. We made a special request to be seated near the window one night, and realized that you have a view of where they stack the plastic plate covers before the dishes go out. Why doesn't NCL take advantage of the possibilities of their design?
Le Bistro French Restaurant - Deck 6 mid-ship: One of the reservation-only, extra charge restaurants, Le Bistro was the only restaurant in which we felt we had truly professional service. We had a knowledgeable waiter who didn't rush us, a friendly host, and a sommelier. We probably spent the longest at dinner here, and truly felt that it was worth the extra charge. The restaurant itself is not large, and is appropriately quiet and softly lit, but the restaurant has windows onto the brightly-lit hallway through which people are passing from the show lounge. NCL has painted "French" looking scenes in the hallway and put "French" style globe streetlights in the hall to try to soften the transition.
The Soho Room - Deck 6 mid-ship: NCL's "trendy" reservation-only, extra charge restaurant. We ate here for dinner twice, as the food and its presentation was probably the best of all the restaurants, and the setting is good, with large pop-art paintings, an aquarium in one wall, and large windows to the outside. There's also some separation between the tables, the lighting is subdued and the music is quiet. Although the service did not quite match the setting, we recommend this for anyone who enjoys fresh California-fusion style food.
Endless Summer - Deck 8 mid-ship: reservations required, but no extra charge. A big disappointment. Both the food and the service were less than average. The restaurant overlooks the atrium, where a band plays every night. We didn't enjoy the band that much, but at least we got a few laughs about it. You couldn't avoid the band since the tables are arranged in small, curved sections with glass railings that are terraced down toward the lower level. Perhaps because the sections are curving, the tables for two are pretty small and our waiter had trouble fitting all the plates, glasses, etc. on the table. The restaurant is billed as being "authentic Hawaiian", but we couldn't figure out what items on the menu were supposed to be Hawaiian. They should just serve the same food as in Aqua and Versailles and not try to be different. Our waiter appeared to be learning his job. If you're going to eat there at least check which band is playing first!
Room service: we usually get room service breakfast so we can have coffee and breakfast before going to work out in the gym. On the Star, room service was always on time and got the orders correct, and they normally called when they were on their way. However, the Star uses plastic plates and mugs, instead of china as on Celebrity. We never ordered room service any other time than breakfast so we can't speak to the quality or the choices.
Entertainment: Most nights we ended up in Gatsby's, the piano bar in between Le Bistro and The Soho Room. Mark was the piano player during our cruise, and he's got the ability to play requests, chat with people, learn everyone's name by the second night, and generally make everyone happy. We only went to the large production shows in the Stardust theater, and were impressed by the singers and dancers, as those things go. We learned later in the week that one of the female singers had been sick, which explained some obvious doubling up of singing parts. We watched a movie in the cinema one night, which has good seats, but there was something wrong with the video projector and we were missing part of the picture. The screen also washes out every time the doors are opened. We attended the "Polynesian" cultural show one evening, which combined some actual cultural lessons about Hawaii, Fiji, and the Philippines with a little wink-wink joking about the women in grass skirts and the hunky men with the mostly elderly audience. There were two bands that alternated in the lobby, neither of which was very impressive. There is a great dance band that plays in the Dazzles nightclub. As you should know if you're reading these reviews, there is no casino on the Star, due to Hawaii's laws.
Not quite in the category of "entertainment", but we spent a good deal of time during days at sea playing Scrabble in the cardroom and reading in the quiet "writing" room. Both of these rooms have floor to ceiling windows and are lovely places to hide out. During the cruise I finished three books from the small but well-stocked library.
Exercise facilities: We work out every day, so a ship's gym is pretty important to us. The gym on board is a good example of the odd design choices on the Star: it's a pretty nice gym as ships go, but it has almost no windows and is poorly lit to boot, making it dark and kind of depressing even though you're cruising in the middle of the sunny Pacific. The only windows are right in front of the exercise bicycles, which look directly out on where overweight people line up to get ice cream. No comment. There were even a few lights that were burned out the entire week of the cruise, which were never replaced. The gym has eight bicycles, treadmills, Stair-steppers, two elliptical trainers, several selectorized weight machines and dumbbells up to 50 lbs. There's an aerobics area that's about 20 by 40 feet. By comparison, Celebrity puts its brightly lit gyms at the front of its ships, with a wall of windows all across the front of the ship. The 10 treadmills face windows, and I remember jogging on the treadmill in the Caribbean as the Millennium was surrounded by a school of dolphins leaping out of the water. On the Star, the ship could be surrounded by dancing whales and you'd never know about it if you were in the dark, sunless gym. There's a walking/running path on the top deck that is separated by a glass wall from the sun loungers above the pool. This is a great idea for joggers, but be careful if you're just strolling and you accidentally enter the path, as you can't get out! There's also a half basketball court between the Garden villas and the funnel that I saw being used occasionally.
Port stops: Obviously, your experience in a port will depend on the excursions you choose, so I'll just describe the ones we took.
Hilo: On the Big Island, we took the tour to the observatories at the top of Moana Kea instead of visiting the Volcano national park. The observatories are at 14,000 feet, so high that you have to stop part way to acclimatize to the thin air. We left the ship at sea level, in warm sunshine, and drove in a van up to 9,000 feet. The guide described the fascinating landscape as we drove, showing us how to tell the difference between the several kinds of lava fields we saw. At 9,000 feet there is a visitors' center with some exhibits, a gift shop, and a small garden with native plants. Our guide fed us some juice, water and cookies, and basically made sure we all felt OK. After almost an hour, we drove on up to 14,000. At that altitude, there are no plants, no life at all. Moonscape is a good word to describe it. Once at the top, you can see the eight or ten different observatories. You actually go inside the Keck observatory, which is air conditioned to match the temperature of the nighttime air so the delicate machinery isn't affected by any changes in temperature. Even with the hour-long pause at 9,000 feet, we still felt a little light-headed up that high. The air is amazingly pure and clear, and we could see all the way back down to our ship in Hilo, down the other side to Kona, and across the water to Maui.
Fanning Island: OK, I admit, we didn't actually get off the ship. The stop itself is pretty short, about five hours, and we're not beach people anyway. As they need to tender guests ashore, it took over an hour to get everyone off. So we just took advantage of the empty ship by lounging by the pool and eating lunch in one of the restaurants. We could see a palm-fringed atoll with white sand beaches that looked picture perfect, but I'm afraid you'll have to read actual descriptions on other reviews.
Maui: As we were planning to return to Maui after the cruise, we debated even taking a tour at all. We finally decided to take a whale-watching trip, and were glad we did. There are LOTS of whale-watching trips on Maui, but NCL arranges its tours with the Pacific Whale Foundation, a non-profit group that is staffed by wildlife biologists and others who love the animals and enjoy telling you about them. This is not a booze cruise, and will be appreciated by those who actually want to learn about the whales' habits. We saw a number of spouts and a few tail flips, but no full breaches. Still, we learned a lot during two hours.
Kauai: We took a bicycle/snorkel excursion along the Poipu coast. We were actually disappointed in the bike ride, as we never even worked up a sweat. But it was beautiful, and amazing to see how relatively undeveloped Kauai is. We bought some "fish food" while we were suiting up with mask, fins and snorkel, and we became very popular with the fish. If you don't scare easily, I recommend it, as you'll be surrounded by a cloud of multicolored, and apparently very hungry, fish. The trick is to release the food and then back up right away.
Ship Design: There are a number of odd design features on the Star that you notice and wonder "why did they do that?" Some of them have to do with designs that block light and views. The dark and windowless gym I've mentioned above. The shops are hidden in the back of Deck 7, and it's all just one big brightly-lit room, like a K-Mart. Not a bad analogy, in fact. Every other ship I've been on strives to make the various shops feel like fine boutiques, and puts them where you have to walk past them to get through the ship. Not NCL. The Spinnaker Lounge at the fore of deck 12 has a prime location at the front of the ship with a wall of windows all around could be a prime viewing spot for whales and Islands, but for the heavy black curtains they've put behind the stage that blocks out the middle third of the view. Celebrity also puts a lounge at the top, front of the ship, but maximizes the view from all the seats in the lounge which makes them very popular spots all day and all evening. I've mentioned the lack of a place to wait to be seated at the Versailles restaurant, and the same is true for Aqua. In addition, neither of them have a bar at the entrance, unlike Celebrity, which puts a champagne/martini bar right at the entrance to the dining rooms. Those bars become popular meeting spots for groups of friends before dinner. The pool deck is terraced up so that all the seats have a great view of the hideous yellow water slides. Also, the ship creaks as it rolls from side to side in open water to the point that we woke up almost every night. We're experienced cruisers, so it wasn't just first-timer's nerves.
Summary: You may be asking why I said that my partner and I wouldn't be cruising on NCL again when I've said so many good things about the ship. Basically, the things that are most important to us, fine food and service, a good gym, and a younger and more cosmopolitan crowd, were lacking. The ship is quite beautiful in some ways, and we made our own fun. Watching the waves, reading a good book, and spending quality time with the one you love can make any cruise a pleasure. Happy cruising! Read Less