Background Information We were originally planning to sail with a different cruise line. I had recently completed a certification class with the other line (I'm a travel agent) and had picked out an Alaska itinerary that would coincide with my husband's birthday. It was a last minute decision (four weeks before sailing). I was having trouble finding a flight home that wouldn't require us to spend the night in port. So my husband decided to "help". He got online and realized we could save $1500 in airfare if we left out of Seattle. The trouble is, the other cruise line didn't go to Seattle, but NCL did, so we booked it and I immediately lost my attention span for anything but our vacation! It was not our first cruise, but would be my first time to Alaska and my first experience with NCL.
Hotel Info We flew into Seattle a day early to help relax and get into "vacation mode" before the cruise. I chose the Embassy Suites for a lot of reasons... The first being they have an airport shuttle service. The shuttle driver also made some recommendations on local restaurants that he would shuttle us to. We took his advice and went to Claim Jumper for a great dinner. On the way back we asked the driver what the best way to get to Pier 66 would be. He said for $45, a few dollars more than a taxi, we could take a Town Car. We loved the idea and he arranged the whole thing for us. I love the two-room suite floor plan that Embassy Suites uses. If we had been staying longer, the microwave, fridge and living room area would make it much more comfortable. Also, the business center had computers with internet access that allowed us to slowly withdraw from our computer addiction. (We went cold turkey and left the laptop at home). I purposely picked a hotel with an indoor pool, knowing that it would probably be too cold in Alaska to swim, so the hotel pool was a great option. There is a nice breakfast buffet included with the stay that was perfect for us the morning we checked out to board the ship. It included hot and cold entrees and an omelet bar. Travel To Port of Embarkation Our Town Car service arrived 10 minutes early. We received a call from the front desk letting us know it had arrived. The driver had obviously made this trip a lot. He was familiar with the Pier, the ships and their destinations. For a few dollars more than the price of a taxi, it was worth every penny.
Embarkation Our paperwork said we could board after 11:30am, but I was wanting to get on board as early as possible so I could get some photos of the ship without a lot of people in them. We arrived at Pier 66 at 10am and it was packed! It turns out all those people had just gotten off the ship. By 10:30 they were mostly gone. One of the port employees explained that all the doors have numbers over them, and that we could do an early bag check in front of doors 5 & 6 and then get in line for embarkation at door 18. There were about 10 people in line in front of us, and we were all swapping cruise stories, so time flew by. The doors soon opened and we moved pretty quickly towards the security screening area. As we walked through the line we were handed a small square of paper with a number on it (ours was #3). We also had to sign a statement saying we hadn't had any symptoms of vomiting or diarrhea in the past two days. The line moved quickly through security then we went upstairs where we registered our credit card, were photographed for security and received our cabin keys. The staff member explained that our 13-year-old son would be able to charge on our account with no restrictions, so we "may need to have a talk with him". (And we did. We didn't have any problems in this area but appreciated the warning). At 11:30 an announcement was made that people holding numbers 1 through 3 could begin boarding. We were early enough that our stateroom wasn't ready yet, but exploring and taking pictures occupied us for quite a while. After 12 o'clock, we went to Versailles for lunch and then went out on deck to find that the Blue Angels were in Seattle for Seafair weekend and they kept us entertained until the announcement was made that our cabin was ready. Boarding went very smoothly for us. The NCL staff members at the pier were all very friendly and helpful. Including the staff member handing out the "Freestyle Daily" (the schedule of events and activities). He was in a wheelchair (I'm guessing because of Cerebral Palsy). That right there spoke volumes to me about the company I was cruising with.
Ship Info The Norwegian Star was built in 2001 and refurbished in 2004. She is one of two Dawn Class Ships, (the other being the Norwegian Dawn). From the colorful stars and streamers on the ship's hull to the artwork around the interior of the ship, the Norwegian Star is a fun adventure all on its' own. Size is relative...it's a pretty big ship, but not the biggest out there. The passenger capacity based on double occupancy is 2,240. With 1,100 crew members, that puts the ratio of crew to passengers at 2 to 1. At the time of our sailing, the crew members represented over 60 different countries. (If you look at a crew member's name tag, it will say where they are from right below their name.) Boarding in Seattle put us directly onto the Promenade on deck 7 right outside the Atrium, an impressive introduction. There's a lot to see on this deck, so go inside and take a lap around to get your bearings. Start in the Atrium at the Reservations Desk and make your dinner reservations. There is one other deck that is worth taking a lap to explore everything and that is deck 12. There's the Market Cafe, the pools, Teen Center, Fitness Center, Meeting Rooms, Library, Theater, Spinnaker Lounge and more. The last deck I recommend on your "first to explore list" is deck 6. Here you will find lots of restaurants, the Casino and one level of the Stardust Theater. Decks 8 through 11 are mostly cabins except for a couple of public areas that are part of the Atrium. Endless Summer Restaurant overlooks the Atrium on deck 8 and deck 9 has the Internet Cafe overlooking the Atrium. The Barong Spa isn't part of the Atrium, it's in the back of the ship, but it's the only public area on deck. Decks 4 & 5 are also mostly cabins except for the medical center on deck 4. At the top of the ship, decks 13 and 14 have small public areas with outdoor activities. Whatever your mood, you can find someplace on the ship to fit your needs. There are quiet areas and fun active areas. You can watch or participate. Service Everyone was very polite and friendly. Our cabin stewards were the only ones that we saw often enough that we got to know each other. The downside of Freestyle cruising is that you don't get to know your wait staff. I did miss that. Overall, I feel that the restaurant service was a bit slow, but always friendly. The wait staff was visibly busy; perhaps they were spread too thin. We also had to replace my son's cabin key as it developed a crack down the middle. For some reason the process caused my key (and my husband's key) to quit working so it involved three trips to the front desk, but was quickly resolved. There was a medical evacuation during our cruise. One of the tenders was lowered to deck 7 and the area around it roped off. Ship's officers were coming and going, helping the family. Unfortunately when the gurney was brought out onto the tender, it was completely covered with a sheet. We were sad for the family and at the same time, impressed with the way the crew assisted them.
Ketchikan We signed up for the Back Country Jet Boat excursion. It was an early tour, our group of about 28 people met at the pier at 7:20am! We were bused to the world famous Salmon Falls Resort where we boarded a covered Jet Boat for a water tour of Clover Pass and Naha Bay. Our tour guide pointed out landmarks and wildlife along the way. He explained how many of the residents of the area had to live "off the grid" and pointed out solar panels, wind turbines and water cisterns. (All of those things we take for granted.) There were some great photo opportunities, but good pictures were hard to get while the boat was moving. (We had 300mm zoom lenses, and it was hard to keep the shot in the viewfinder while the boat was moving). Whenever our guide spotted wildlife, the boat captain would bring the boat in closer and stop so we could get pictures. We saw eagles, deer, and seals. The history of the area and the stories about some of the places we visited were fascinating. It kept our 13 year old interested. After the boat ride, we had about 45 minutes to enjoy a snack at the resort and browse their gift shop before taking the bus back to the ship. We also explored Ketchikan for about 90 minutes. I enjoyed the local shops more than the obvious jewelry store transplants that were not locally owned. If you find yourself needing a warm jacket, we saw several in town that were cheaper than the ones on the ship.
Juneau We opted to split up for our Juneau tours. I went on the Capture Juneau Photography Tour while my husband and son went on the Mendenhall Glacier and Wildlife Quest. The Photography tour was a small group of nine of us. We boarded a small bus that was equipped with a computer and large screen monitor. Our guide was a professional photographer that gave instruction via the monitor while the bus was en route to our different destinations. Our group had both professional and amateur photographers with both high-end and point and shoot cameras. The instructor did a great job of covering the basic and advanced topics along with great visual aids that demonstrated his points. (For example he talked about the importance of depth of field and then explained how to get this effect on a point and shoot digital camera as well as using the manual mode to do it with a DSLR camera.) We went to a total of 4 locations that were ordered based on the sun's movement and location at that time of day. We explored an old gold mine, a lookout point across the water from where the cruise ships were parked, a meadow near the Mendenhall Glacier and finally Mendenhall Glacier (where I bumped into my husband and son on their tour). Before going to Mendenhall glacier, my husband and son had an amazing experience whale watching. They not only saw whales, they saw a lot of them! Their guide taught them what to watch for and explained the behavior behind what they saw. Next they went to Mendenhall Glacier where they explored on their own trying to find the bear that was rumored to be in the area (when the saw me). Naturally the bear showed up again after we moved on somewhere else.
Skagway You'll find that sometimes two tours are combined into one. This worked great for us in Skagway because I wanted to pan for gold and my husband wanted to ride the train. The White Pass Railway and Klondike Gold Dredge excursion was the perfect choice. First we were bused to the Gold Dredge where our tour guide "Lone Star Suzie" (dressed in a period costume) gave us some history on the Gold Dredge. We were then instructed on how to pan for gold. The panning part went very fast, and then we were given a tour of the dredge. We had our gold weighed and valued and then browsed the gift shop before boarding the bus for the White Pass Railway. I'm glad we did the tours in this order (some groups did it in the opposite order). The train ride was much longer. It was narrated over a speaker system. There was also a booklet with a map and a list of the points of interest along the way. Everyone was asking which side of the train is the best one to sit on. The answer is, it doesn't really matter. The train is set up so that when you get to the top of White Pass, you swap seats with the person in the isle across from you and then fold the seat back over. It's hinged on the ends so you can just flip it and always be facing the same direction the train is moving. You'll get to see the view from both sides. The train engine moves to the other end of the train for the trip back. That is when our guide brought out the champagne or sparkling cider and a selection of smoked salmon spread, sausages sticks, cheese and dried fruit. She was very good with kids too. She recruited their help in passing out things for her and lavishing them with praise for their help.
Prince Rupert My husband was signed up for the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Viewing excursion, but due to the medical evacuation the night before, we arrived too late and this tour was cancelled. He ended up going on the Canadian River Float instead. It was enjoyable, but it wasn't bear viewing, so I didn't hear much about it. My son & I opted to wander around town on our own. There's a nice park across the street from the pier where people were welcoming us and handing our maps as we walked up. We saw a couple of eagles in the span of about an hour. Prince Rupert is a fairly new port of call and it's obvious that many of the local residents are excited for the business that the cruise ships bring. We were a bit disappointed that our passports didn't get stamped in customs (customs was a quick "non-event") but found out that the Visitors Bureau will do it, so we stopped there, and it was fast, easy and right by the pier. Prince Rupert is a great town. I liked the locally based merchants and the lack of high-end jewelry stores that seem to sprout up in cruise ports.
Stateroom We opted for an inside stateroom (category JJ, room 9597). Our thinking was it was my husband's birthday and we would rather spend the extra money on shore excursions. If I had it to do again, I would like a balcony. Unlike other parts of the world, the Inside Passage of Alaska has more than an endless body of water to look at between ports. There are islands and glaciers and whales. The scenery is breathtaking and if you would be drawn to it, a balcony may be worth it for you. Our cabin stewards had already converted the twin beds into one queen/king-sized bed. There was an upper bunk ready as well. We stored two suitcases under the bed and one in the closet. We used all three of the drawers and shelves. It was a bit cozy, but we expected it would be. The mattress on our bed was very firm, so were the pillows. Three days into the cruise my husband ended up with a migraine. Someone in the spa told him to ask the cabin stewards for a mattress topper and different pillows. That made a big difference. If we had known about it, we would have asked sooner. The room included a TV, refrigerator/mini bar and hair dryer that were hard wired in. (So you couldn't "borrow" those outlets) There was one outlet in the room by the hair dryer and mirror at the foot of the bed. If you need to charge camera batteries, video games, laptops or run a C-Pap machine, a power strip will be a big help. There were individual reading lights for each bed, but no clock. So when the lights go out, it's pitch black. If you will be staying in an inside cabin, you may want to bring a light up digital clock. If you are having a tough time without a window, turn on your TV to channel 2. You'll get the live feed from the ship's web cam. (If you see beads of water across the screen, be thankful you didn't pay extra for a balcony, add another layer and grab the umbrella.) Next time, I would get an outside cabin because between ports, in Alaska, there are things to see, and it turns out, I need the sun to wake up. The bathroom is nicer than I expected for the small space, although in this cabin category, the shower and toilet are not divided into two private areas. There is an outlet in here next to the sink. There's a small magnifying mirror attached to the big mirror. The shower had me stumped for a bit....there's two handles, one with a blue spot, one with a red one. I turned on the red one first, and nothing happened. After a bit of experimenting, I figured out that the handle with the blue spot controls water flow, and the one with the red spot controls temperature. There's also a dispenser in the shower with shampoo and body wash (but no conditioner).
Dining With ten restaurants, room service, plus a buffet, you may think it's all about the food...and for some people, it is. If you like diversity, on the Norwegian Star, you'll have it, formal to casual, American and International. Others, (like my 13 year old son) aren't interested in spending ninety minutes on a nice meal, they just keep a running total of how many slices of pizza they ate during the cruise (74). There's a restaurant for everyone. With NCL's Freestyle Cruising, there is no assigned time or table, (although the Maitre 'd can arrange it for you if you would like). You can choose from several restaurants that are included with the price of your cruise or select a specialty restaurant for an additional per person cover charge.
As of August 2nd 2008 these are the rates for meals: Versailles - no charge Aqua - no charge Blue Lagoon - no charge Market Cafe - no charge The Grill - no charge Room Service - no charge La Trattoria - $10 Endless Summer - $10 Le Bistro - $15 Soho Room - $15 Ginza - $15 Cagney's - $20 Teppanyaki Room - $25
Believe it or not, we didn't have time to sample all the restaurants! Here's our take on the ones we did visit:
Versailles - This is the designated "dress up" restaurant. I have to say, I heard crew members telling people they weren't supposed to wear blue jeans in this restaurant, but I saw a few pairs of blue jeans. (Jeans are welcome in any of the other restaurants). It's a beautiful place. Located in the back of the ship, with high ceilings, the entire back wall is made up of windows that look out over the ocean. We had both lunch and dinner here, but never made it for breakfast. The menu items change daily and are often gourmet dishes with foreign names. If you are traveling with picky eaters that are used to fast food, they may get frustrated when they can't figure out what some of these dishes are. Portion sizes were a bit smaller than I expected (this coming from someone that hit the average 6-14 pound weight gain on the cruise). Lobster was served on formal night, and was good, but was only a small lobster tail, not the big red crustacean presentation I was expecting. I would rate the overall food as slightly above average in appeal, variety and presentation. It was nothing to complain about, but not as good as I have had on other cruise lines. The service was fine; nothing bad about it, but nothing above average either. We usually had a bit of a wait between courses.
Aqua - This restaurant shares a kitchen with Versailles and has an almost identical menu. It is smaller, darker and more intimate than Versailles. Again, we had a longer wait between courses than I would have liked, but I always hoped that my appetizer would digest in time to make room for dessert. We were among the first to be seated at 5:30 and barely finished in time to catch the 7pm show.
Blue Lagoon - When one of my husband's shore excursions ran late past dinner, he came here for some chicken wings (while I waited in line for the Chocolate Buffet). He wished he had discovered this place earlier in the cruise. It's set up cafe style but has a "main thoroughfare hallway" that goes right through it. It's open 24 hours, so if you're hungry at an odd hour, and don't want to wake others in your cabin, this is the place to come.
Market Cafe - This is the buffet. Due to the nature of buffets, they have a crew member at each entry door with a spray bottle of hand sanitizer. Since it's also a main hallway from one end of deck 12 to the other, you may get sanitized even if you aren't eating...no big deal. Because it was fast, and our shore excursions all seemed to start between 7 and 7:30 am, we ate breakfast here every day. There are three segments to the buffet on one side that are all different, and another segment on the opposite (port) side of the ship that becomes the La Trattoria for dinner. There was a variety of hot and cold breakfast foods that were pretty much the same from one day to the next. Lunch had a bit more variety, (including a chocolate fountain!) If you are cruising through the Market Cafe, but not staying to eat, grab a chocolate chip cookie off the dessert section of the buffet for me. (I'm sure that's where the extra pounds came from.)
Room Service - My son used this once (you guessed it, pizza) and said they came pretty fast. My husband tried this the night his excursion got in late and was told due to the number of people that missed dinner because of the late excursion, it would be an hour. That is how he ended up in the Blue Lagoon. The menu choices were pretty standard with a good variety.
La Trattoria - We made reservations for this restaurant first thing when we boarded the ship. It was a bit hard to find, since until it opens, it doesn't exist. It's actually the starboard side of the Market Cafe. During dinner it is transformed with Italian dEcor and becomes La Trattoria. The food was excellent, although I think we ate there on an off night. We were the second table seated after it opened, but waited a long time for service. Some friends asked us later what we thought of all the breads and dipping sauces and we said "what dipping sauces"? We didn't even have butter. I had the Lobster Ravioli and it was excellent, but there were only four normal sized Ravioli included with my entrEe (and still I gained weight.....). I suppose when you see a lot of wasted food, it's better to serve seconds than toss good food. This restaurant just started charging a cover charge. I'm on the fence about whether it was worth it. The food was great, but there was no hiding the buffet atmosphere and I'm still wondering about the dipping sauces we missed out on.
Endless Summer - Here's another restaurant that just started charging a cover charge. The exterior of the restaurant is all windows with ocean views, the interior is open overlooking the Atrium. It is much more "upscale" that La Trattoria. I liked this atmosphere, except for the loud music coming up from the Atrium. The food here was great, the quantity was plentiful, but it wasn't any better than a nice Mexican restaurant at home. I'm on the fence about the cover charge here too.
Cagney's Steakhouse - We came here for my husband's birthday dinner. It's on the 13th deck, so the view is stunning. The steak here is great. Of all the meals we had on board, the wait staff here interacted with us on a personal level the most; not just the person that took our orders, but also the person that brought our drinks. The staff also brought a cake over and sang Happy Birthday. It was definitely worth the cover charge.
Children's Clubs NCL has separate programs for kids based on their ages. My 13 year old son participated in the Teen Program designed for 13-17 year olds.
The teen program was pre-arranged and printed up on a flyer with the schedule for the whole cruise. We checked in at the Teen Center shortly after boarding and signed the release forms. There was an air hockey table, a foosball table, several computers (no internet) and a Wii. The first few activities involved "getting to know you" games. The Wii competitions were popular, but overall, turnout was pretty low. (I personally wanted to do the digital camera scavenger hunt, but didn't want to embarrass my son hang out with teenagers.)
Overall, I only have two beefs with the teen program: First, shortly after setting sail, the kids were doing what I thought was a "meet & greet" activity. What really happened was they were turned loose on the ship to recruit other kids. They were supposed to be in groups, but there weren't enough kids so they were wandering around in "groups" of one or two. Whoever brought back the most kids won a prize. We happened to bump into our son wandering around by himself, lost. It's not the best way to make a good impression with a parent. Second, I was a bit frustrated to discover that the Teen Center isn't a dedicated area. It is shared with the 9-12 year olds. Activities are rotated between the groups. None of this was made clear to us. I was expecting to go to other activities on the ship knowing my son would have the teen center to hang out in, instead, I ended up arranging some of my activities around the teen schedule so he would have something to do and I would know where to find him. The very first night, we though he was in the teen center and were expecting him back at the cabin at 11pm. At 11:30 we went to the teen center to find him only to discover it was empty. In my head I'm thinking there's a big difference between a 13 year old and a 17 year old; where is my son and who is he with? My husband and I split up running up and down stairs trying to find him, he took the front half of the ship and I took the back. Our son turned up at the cabin a few minutes later. It turns out the 9-12 year olds were using the Teen Center and the 13-17 year olds had to move their activity to the ping-pong tables by the kids pool at the back of the ship. He just lost track of time. After that total body panic workout, we developed a system where we agreed on 3 places he could be during a certain time period so we could limit our workouts to the gym and know where to find him.
On the second day, when my son resisted going to the Teen Center I had to grill him to find out why. It turns out, my son went down there to hang out while my husband and I were at another activity, only to be told by the counselor for the 9-12 year olds to "Get out or I'll throw you out". When I asked him to point her out to me, he knew I would bite her head off could never find her for some reason. This is how we learned that you couldn't just go to the Teen Center anytime and hangout. You have to wait until your age group has a scheduled activity.
When it comes to kids, you aren't going to please everyone. As far as the Teen Program goes, the intent and planning is well organized. The logistics need work. Separate areas for the 9-12 year olds and the 13-17 year olds would resolve a lot of issues.
Entertainment There was a different show in the Stardust Theater every evening (usually with two showings). The first evening on board there was a sampling of some of the different shows that would be performing on the cruise. We really loved the music, but if you notice in the "Freestyle Daily", some of the shows are rated PG-13. I don't think it would have detracted from the shows at all to be a bit less suggestive with the costumes and dance moves, especially when the teen schedule had the kids sitting together at the shows.
Onboard Activities The "Freestyle Daily" is like a mini newspaper with a list of the day's activities and announcements along with the upcoming weather report. It is given to you first during the boarding process and again each evening when your cabin is turned down. More than once I was in a position where I had to choose between two activities going on at the same time. There are sports and fitness activities, NCL "U" classes on wine and cheese tasting, photography, and upcoming ports of call. There's dance classes, a Texas Hold'em Tournament and of course Bingo. We had a blast participating in the Murder Mystery Dinner and met some great folks. (Poor captain Stubing, he never saw it coming). There was time for quiet reading too on the last sea day we discovered the "Port Room" just off the Spinnaker Lounge.
Disembarkation In true Freestyle form, you can pick when you disembark from a list of time frames. There are color-coded luggage tags available in the Atrium the day before disembarkation; you also fill out a form to let the crew know when you plan to leave. The norm is to leave you luggage outside your cabin door the night before so the crew can collect and sort them according to your disembarkation schedule. One option however is to disembark in the first group and carry your own luggage. We took this option, again eating at the Market Cafe for a quick eat and dash breakfast, then getting in line to end our vacation. (Quick tip: When the line in the Atrium heads back through the Blue Lagoon, instead of following it, go around the opposite direction to meet up with the end. It will be much faster.) I didn't mind hauling our own luggage. The only down side is it may take a few minutes to get an elevator that you will fit into (or your family may end up in separate elevators). Lots of people took advantage of this option and so elevators were packed full of people and suitcases. There was a long line, but it moved slow and steady. Customs was almost a non-event, (we filled out the form the night before and handed it off) and since we had our luggage with us, we were on the street in front of the pier within five minutes of stepping off the ship.
Summary The Norwegian Star is a beautiful ship. It's big enough that we didn't have time to explore all of it, and diverse enough that at any time there was something fun on the schedule. The crew was friendly and a variety of food was available 24 hours a day. We enjoyed the different restaurants, but missed getting to know the wait staff. Eating "whenever" was great.
The ports of call all had a lot to choose from, sometimes it was hard to choose. The Inside Passage of Alaska is great for cruisers that are concerned about seasickness. The protected waters make for smooth sailing. Cell phone service is available while in the ports of call, and spotty in between ports. If you are business owners like us, you can check in with the office off and on. The round trip sailing from Seattle makes airline connections easy too. All around, the Norwegian Star is a fantastic vacation choice. Read Less