This was our second cruise aboard the Star and our fifth with NCL. Our previous cruise on the Star was on the Mexican Riviera. We are empty nesters so its easy to get away any time of the year, as long as we can find cat-sitters. We chose to do Alaska in May because the weather in Alaska can be as cold and rainy in July as it is in May, but in May there are fewer ships in port than later in the season.
The ship sailed from Vancouver, BC, because the previous cruise had been a repositioning cruise from Los Angeles. Vancouver was the foreign port that was required in order for the ship to operate its casino. But the Star will be primarily based in Seattle this summer. We stayed at the River Rock Casino, which is just east of the airport and right across the street from a light rail station. We don't gamble, but we found a package special on Travelzoo that included a two room suite, breakfast, and free parking, for just $140 per night, including tax. Unless you want to go out of town, you don't even need a car if you stay here, because the airport and Canada Place (the location of the cruise terminal) are all on the same, very easy to use, rail line. We chose to rent a car because we wanted to drive up to Whistler the day before the ship sailed.
We were aware that two HAL ships were departing from Canada Place cruise terminal on the same day as the Star. What we did not know is that the cruise terminal, while having room for up to three ships, was totally unprepared to deal with three ships. We got our first clue when we found the streets by Canada Place in total gridlock. We called the rental agency and were told to return to the care to the parking ramp under Canada Place. However, the traffic police had that blocked off and did not want to allow us in. I was let in after explaining to the cop that we needed to return the car. Our plan was to return the car at noon, check our bags with NCL, and wander around Gastown for a couple of hours. Wrong. After returning the car, we headed down the jammed elevators to the cruise terminal. We were met at the bottom by a huge queue, stretching as far back and forward as we could see. We were curtly informed by someone who appeared to be in charge that those at this location in the line had been waiting for two hours, and that we would have to go back up the packed elevators, out onto the street, and down the street to get to the end of the line. Another person who seemed to be in charge suggested that people may want to go away for a couple of hours and "have a coffee". We decided to take his advice and leave for awhile. Unfortunately, there was no way to dump our bags. So we took off, three suitcases, a backpack, and a carry bag in tow. Strolling Gastown was out of the question. Fortunately, we found Steamworks brewpub nearby and had a couple of excellent beers. I also ran down to the Alibi Room a few blocks away while the wife watched the bags. We returned at 2:30 and found the queue to still be huge, but at least it was moving. We still waited in lines for another hour before we were on the ship. The major jam was at customs. Everyone had to clear US customs before boarding. The queue for each ship did not even start until after customs. It looked like the non US or Canada citizens were being shunted off to a waiting room and were waiting even longer. Until we cleared customs, there was not an NCL or HAL representative in sight. I know the queue was not the fault of either cruise line, but I wish they had their reps out there letting people know what was going on. Based on this experience, I would advise avoiding cruises from Vancouver, or at least making sure that no other ships are leaving that day.
Since we'd been on the Star before, we pretty much knew what to expect. The jogging track on deck 13 is ¼ mile per lap and extends almost 2/3 the length of the ship, making for great sights while running. The only problem is, for much if its length, the track is separated by a Plexiglas wall from the rest of the deck. Since the track is right against the railing, there is the temptation for non-runners to use the track for standing and taking pictures. The Star has a great terraced sundeck above the pool. This deck was very popular when we took the Star to Mexico. Unfortunately, it is likely to not get much use on an Alaska cruise. The Spinnaker lounge has moved from a bright space on Deck 11 forward to a windowless space on Deck 7 aft. If I'd booked an inside stateroom with the intention of watching the sights of Alaska go by from the comfort of the Spinnaker lounge, I'd have asked for my money back after they moved it. There are really few interior spaces left on the Star to just sit and watch the scenery. And you need this for an Alaskan cruise. The library, which used to be in a very nice space by the old Spinnaker, is now in a temporary space by the Internet Cafe. Most books are only set out for a few hours per day.
Our stateroom was an aft balcony on deck 10. We love aft balconies: we had one on the Jewel last summer. The balcony is larger than inside balcony cabins; ours was even larger than the balcony we had in a mini-suite on our previous Star cruise! Being in the rear keeps you out of the wind. Our two sea days were sunny days and we were able to sit on the balcony in our bathing suits and just sun. Of course, we are from Minnesota, so 60 degrees feels warm! And when cruising in scenic areas, you can just tune the TV to the bow cam to see what's coming up. And, of course, you can see the sights on both sides of the ship. The room size was standard for a balcony: there was a queen bed, small couch that doubled as a bed for a third person, and a small table. The size is adequate for two people, but would be quite cramped if you tried to shoehorn a third person in. There's not much foot traffic in the very back of the ship, so there was little hallway noise. Immediately above our stateroom was the spa, so there was no late night noise from above. WiFi is now available in the state rooms, and the connection is good. But the ship's standard Internet price is 75 cents per minute, and the best of the packages only cuts the price in about half. And there is still a one time "connection fee" of about $4 on the ship.
We ate most of our dinners in the Versailles main dining room, along with a few breakfasts and lunches. The food is standard NCL fare: Good quality, well presented, but nothing spectacular. We recognized most of the menu items from previous NCL cruises. Service, with a couple of exceptions, was usually fairly fast and even. The dining room seemed more crowded for breakfast and lunch than we've experienced in the past. I'm guessing it had to do with the lack of desirable outdoor dining options on an Alaska cruise. The queue was long a couple of times when we arrived for dinner, but had disappeared when we returned later. A trick we have learned is to go to the early show in the Stardust Theater, sit on the mezzanine level in the back, then leave as the show is ending and make a bee line along the promenade deck on 7 back to the Versailles. The biggest problem we had was when we tried to use a free bottle of wine coupon we had from a previous cruise. The waiter said that, despite there being no time limitations on the coupon, they no longer used the coupon. A person who appeared to be his supervisor, confirmed that. My wife had a quick conversation with the F&B Director Ivo Bellev about this at the Latitudes meeting and we had a bottle of wine AND a cheese plate in the stateroom within two hours. While we were very grateful for this, it was disappointing that the dining room staff did not feel empowered enough to be able to honor what was obviously an NCL-issued coupon. We ate at the buffet a few times for lunch and breakfast. The buffet has lines, not stations, making for very long queues at times. Tip: if you want a ready made omelet for breakfast, you will have to go to the Versailles Room or order room service. The only omelets at the buffet are pre made, and are only one type. We ordered room service for a late lunch one day and had a good pizza and sandwich delivered in about 30 minutes. We ordered room service twice for breakfast with less successful results. The first time, we had ordered cereal and yogurt as part of our order. No spoons were included with the order, so I had to run up to the buffet to get a couple. Which kind of defeats the purpose of room service. The second time, we ordered room service for 6:30 AM (the earliest time you can order room service breakfast) because we were due in port at 7 AM. We got a call at 6:20 AM that our breakfast was on its way. Great! However, at 6:45 AM we still had not seen any breakfast. I called room service to see where it was. They said they'd have to check. I responded that if they did not know where it was then we'd just go to the buffet, because we needed to get into town. I was somewhat surprised that, despite three port calls at 7 AM, the buffet never opened before 6:30 AM and Versailles never opened before 7 AM. We only ate twice at the surcharge restaurants. There were no two for one specials that NCL often offers for early or late reservations. We ate dinner at La Cucina Italian restaurant one night. The food and service were great. The Italian and Mexican restaurants have the lowest surcharge, at $10. We also went to the "Best Of" lunch in Le Bistro the final sea day. For $15, you can order selected items off the menus of the surcharge restaurants and also select items from a buffet of offerings from those restaurants. I think this is a very good idea for NCL. They utilize a space that is unused for lunch and get to charge $15, and the passengers get to try menu items from restaurants they might not otherwise visit.
The entertainment in the Stardust Lounge was not as good as it usually is. We saw the Jeanne Ann Ryan Company production of "Band on the Run" for the third time. This is getting really old. They need to either get some better '70's songs for the show, or scrap it altogether. Bob Trunell did a magic show that wasn't particularly unique. We saw Second City, with many recycled jokes we saw a different Second City troupe do on the Jewel. A notch above these acts was Cirque Pacific, featuring the Jeanne Ann Ryan Company and a couple of Chinese acrobats. While not as spectacular as the Cirque Bijou show we saw on the Jewel, it was quite entertaining and the performers did a very good job. The best show as "Oh What a Night" a group that performs Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons hits. The sound quality was very good and the singers did a good job, especially on the falsetto pieces. We didn't go to any late night shows in the Spinnaker, even though it was just three decks below ours. It probably had something to do with three 7 AM port calls. The Cruise Director, Candi, was very enthusiastic and did a good job. She was the Asst Cruise Director the last time we were on the Star. I think she may have been a last minute replacement as Cruise Director, because the Freestyle Daily on embarkation day referred to "Cruise Director Ray Carr", and his picture was initially up on the photo wall of the ship's officers. His photo quickly disappeared, but Candi's photo never appeared.
Our ports were Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Prince Rupert, BC. We arranged our own tours in every port except Prince Rupert. We took no ship organized shore excursions.
In Ketchikan, we booked a Misty Fjords airplane tour through Southeast Aviation. The cost was $206 for early booking. The day was warm, bright and clear, and the fjords were not misty at all! We got a smooth 90 minute scenic ride in a 6 seater plane. The pilot set down in an isolated lake and we scampered onto a large rock for photos. $206 is a lot to spend for 90 minutes, but given the beautiful weather, it was a good investment. If it were cloudy or rainy I'm not sure I'd think the same way. We then walked around town (all you need is a couple hours, maximum, to do this). Most of the shops were tourist oriented. We stopped at the New York Cafe for $5.25 craft beers and 12 cent per minute Internet terminals. We had picked up a walking map of Ketchikan and it had a coupon in it for a free beer glass with the purchase of an Alaskan Amber beer at Fat Stan's pub, near the dock. The two drafts, Longboard Lager (a Hawaiian beer in Alaska??) and an Alaskan summer beer (no Amber on draft) were expensive at $6.50, but not expensive if you want a souvenir glass thrown in for free. We walked off the ship in Juneau with nothing pre booked, but immediately signed up for the $14 round trip shuttle to Mendenhall Glacier. The bus did not leave for an hour, so we walked about five blocks uphill to check out the state capitol building and the state office building (with totem pole and stuffed bear in the lobby). We were back to the dock in plenty of time to catch the shuttle to Mendenhall. The trip took about 20 minutes and let us off very close to the visitor center. We skipped the visitor center and headed straight to the glacier. While you can see glacier quite well from the visitor center, you have to walk for about 20 minutes to get to the waterfall, which is as close to the glacier as you can get. It's worth the walk, if you are up to it. Back in town, my wife went to the library for free Wi FI, while I hit the Alaskan Hotel for a couple of beers. The place was gorgeous - it looked like an ornate British Pub. They had 18 craft beers on draft, and sadly, almost no customers. By contrast, the "historic" Red Dog Saloon, closer to the dock, was full of tourists. The library Wi Fi proved to be very slow, so my wife eventually joined me at the Alaskan Hotel. We discovered that they also had Wi Fi (ask for the password). I also had a great Crab Bisque at Tracy's Crab Shack, right by the dock. You know this place is good when you see Scandinavians from the ship's crew eating there. I didn't see the F & B Director there, but I did see him heading back to the ship from that direction! It was cooler and cloudier in Juneau that it was in Ketchikan, but it was still in the '50's. We left Juneau at the early hour of 1:30 PM, but the afternoon was spent cruising by a glacier. We were supposed to cruise by Sawyer Glacier, but the captain said it was too icy in that area, so we cruised by another glacier whose name I fail to recall.
In Skagway we had pre booked a trip for $69 through Dyea Dave over the White Pass and up to Carcross, Yukon. We booked with another couple and their toddler son. We met them on line though our cruise's roll call board on Cruise Critic. This is the third time we have booked tours with strangers we met on the roll call. We've had great results every time! Dyea Dave apparently was chauffeuring another group, so he subcontracted the job to Howard Mallory, who runs Alcan Myway Excursions. Howard was great guide, with lots of local knowledge. The day was chilly with intermittent rain, but the drive was gorgeous. It was foggy and snowy at the pass. Those who paid a lot of money for the train were probably disappointed when they got to the top of the White Pass and all they saw was white! And the train apparently did not go any further than White Pass this early in the season. In Carcross, we came upon a female Canadian Mountie, in full Mountie gear. The other couple's toddler was also dressed in red, so we stopped and asked if she would mind having his picture snapped with her. She happily obliged, then invited us over the Carcross Police Garage for a BBQ! Apparently, it was police week, and it seemed the whole town was there for the BBQ, including kids and dogs (they must have let school out). They had a couple of grills fired up with hot dogs and burgers, and also had chili, cookies, and coffee. This turned out to be a real highlight, to be able to spend some time with real locals, instead of just those in the tourist industry. Back in Skagway, we checked out the local library for Wi Fi. While there were a lot of people inside working on laptops, we couldn't get a connection. We went to the Skagway Brewery for a couple of beers brewed on premise, then hit the "Sarah Palin Store". Yes, there really is a Sarah Palin Store in Skagway! I'm guessing the store is not sanctioned by Sarah herself, as there were many unflattering items on sale, along with the requisite "Run, Sarah, Run" bumper stickers. I got my picture taken with a life size cardboard cutout of her, and told everyone at work that this was a picture of me and my new Alaskan girlfriend! Before boarding the ship we stopped for a quick beer at the Red Onion Saloon, which was full of tourists, but had a nice selection of microbrews. The NCL Pearl was also in port that day. Even with two ships in port, Skagway did not seem overly crowded,
The only reason I can figure that NCL stops in Prince Rupert is to have a foreign port before returning to the US. We saw no NCL shore excursions that looked remotely interesting, and none of the trips being sold on the dock were any more interesting. The weather was nice, so we walked up the hill into town and to a mall, where we were able to buy Wi Fi access for $2 per hour. Half of the storefronts in town are vacant. There are several blocks of vacant lots, and even a burned out building. The town center appears to mainly serve fishing crews. How else would you explain 5 barber shops, and a bar that does not open until 9 PM? The fire museum just up the hill from the dock is somewhat interesting and is free (donations accepted). There were some little craft shops in Cow Bay, down by the dock. We also stopped for a beer at Breaker's Pub in Cow Bay. They had some interesting Canadian beers and free Wi Fi. Nearby, we watched a bald eagle in a nest.
Disembarkation at Pier 66 in Seattle was a breeze. Since we were in no hurry, we chose luggage tags that allowed us to be two of the last passengers off the ship. On this one day only, the Versailles dining room opened early, This was probably to encourage people to get off the ship early. Despite that, service was surprisingly slow. There was no line to clear customs and our bags were waiting for us in the terminal. We were the last passengers in our tag color group, but there was an NCL rep keeping an eye on all unclaimed baggage. Interesting note about the Pier 66 Terminal: After the Star set sail on its next cruise that afternoon, a group from our friend's daughter's high school came in and decorated it for a prom. All of the prom decorations had to be immediately taken down right after the prom, because the NCL Pearl was due in the next morning. We had a room booked for two nights at the downtown Crowne Plaza ($79 per night + tax) which included free parking. The taxi ride was only $11 (with tip) and our room was ready when we arrived at 10:30 AM. We hung around downtown all day, so we did not need a car. We hopped the light rail for the airport the next morning to pick up a car. The light rail station is only three blocks (downhill) from the Crowne Plaza.
A note about Seattle airport: There is free Wi Fi throughout the airport. And if you have an early flight out, like we did, many food outlets are open at 5 AM and most are open by 6 AM.
A cruise is definitely the best way to see this part of the country. Juneau and Ketchikan are land-locked, and Skagway is accessible only by a long drive from the Alaska highway. May is a fine time to do Alaska. I'm not sure I'd want to do those ports in summer when they are crowded with several ships. We don't have much experience with other cruise lines, but we like NCL, and especially the freestyle dining options. The NCL Pearl substitutes Victoria, BC for Prince Rupert. All other things being equal, I'd guess I'd rather stop in Victoria. Both the Pearl and the Star will be mostly based out of Seattle this summer, so avoiding Vancouver as an embarkation point should not be a problem.. Read Less