July 14-21, 2002 ~
by Armand Mantia
Of all the reviews I have written
over the years, I approach this one with the greatest hesitancy for
fear of coming across as too picky and too negative, but here goes.
By way of introduction, as some of
you know I am a veteran of over 26 cruises on lines ranging in quality
from Crystal and QE2 (Grill Class), to the late, lamented Premier and
Regency, and it is no secret that my favorite line is HAL. I have
sailed NCL 3 times in the past, beginning with a woefully inadequate
cruise on the then Seaward, now Norwegian Sea, followed by a
spectacular sailing on the Dynasty, which ranks as one of my favorite
ships ever, and then a delightful time on the brand new Norwegian Sky.
I was looking forward to trying this
new ship and freestyle cruising but sadly came away terribly
disappointed. For those who don't want to read to the end, in brief,
the Star is, in places, a spectacular ship, with some major design
flaws, delivering a thoroughly underwhelming cruise, to some of the
most beautiful places on earth. What follows are my opinions only, and
I will gladly respect anyone who feels otherwise.
As I said, the ship is, in places,
truly spectacular. She is also the largest and most densely populated
ship I have ever sailed on, which was part of my problem. I simply
don't like ships this large, or crowds this big. From as early as
embarkation I felt that the Star simply did not absorb crowds well. I
read reviews of other equally large, or larger, ships which rejoice
that you never get the sense of crowding. Not so here. No matter where
you were, there was always a mass of people and lines for everything.
Her interior decor is wonderful:
bright and exciting without being overwhelming or overdone. Every room
was tasteful and elegant, I never wondered "why did they do
that?" Obvious Asian touches (thank you Star Cruises) are
everywhere and public rooms are well laid out, airy and kept
immaculately clean. Soft furnishings are well designed and supremely
comfortable, except in the Starlight Theater, the main showroom, where
the theater style seating is simply too tight and too close together.
This room is used only for production shows and on one evening it is
turned into the largest movie theater at sea. The Spinnaker Louge,
high above the ship, is the secondary show lounge, and home to most of
the daytime and evening activities. It is very comfortable, easy to
negotiate with good, but not perfect, sight lines. In terms of decor,
the other room worth a special mention is the Versailles Restaurant,
truly one of the most magnificent dining rooms at sea, with its
classical "grande decente" staircase reminiscent of the
great French Line. If only the food came anywhere close to the
surroundings, but more on that later. Other quiet escapes such as the
library and card rooms, were welcome respites from the crowds.
Our cabin, #10516 was a standard
balcony cabin forward on deck 10. It too was beautifully decorated
with lots of cherry wood accents, although not as large as you would
expect on a new ship. It was larger than the cabins on the Sky, but
not in the same league as comparable accommodations on other ships.
The balcony itself was small but perfectly adequate for the limited
time it was used. There was room for a lounge chair, an upright chair
and a small table.
Access to the balcony, via a sliding
door, required that the beds be place across the room, instead of
lengthwise to it. This resulted in a severe loss of floor space, and
made for awkward movement when two people were trying to get by each
other. The standard outside cabins without balcony are actually
arranged much better, have considerably more movement space, and just
"feel" roomier. Closet and drawer space were perfectly fine
and the safe is very well located. A million "thank you's"
to whichever designer finally got it right and put a real hair dryer
at the dressing table in the room instead of those anemic wall mounted
things in a steamy bathroom. Everything you have read about the
superbly designed cabin bathrooms is entirely true. Toilet, sink and
very roomy shower are each in their own sliding door compartment. The
result is no shower curtain to become intimately acquainted with. An
adequate selection of lotions and potions are housed in dispensers on
the appropriate walls. Another very good idea the message unit outside
of each room. A spinning disk replaces the usual "do not
disturb" or "make up cabin" door hangers. This is also
where all the flotsam which is usually placed under your door is left.
I'm not sure if this is a Star Cruise
innovation or not, but the service crew on deck, and in cabins and
dining rooms, is overwhelmingly Eastern European women, principally
Romanian and Ukranian and Asian men. There are very few of the
traditional Caribbean and South American staff who NCL once used
almost exclusively. With some notable excellent exceptions, most
performed their jobs adequately, at best. While they all understood
the "letter" of their job, few really understood the
"spirit" of it. Your food order was taken and delivered, and
if you wanted a drink, you got a drink, but rarely did it come with a
smile or any indication that the server was doing anything more than
performing a job. Perhaps knowing that they were already guaranteed
tips caused this.
Speaking of drinks, I have never been on a ship that hawked more
variations of the "souvenir glass" then this one did.
Morning to night, day in and day out, on ship and on shore, you always
had the opportunity to sign for something colorful in a different
shaped container, be it an official NCL tankard, tumbler, champagne
flute, sports cup, daquiri glass, Margarita glass, yard of beer glass,
etc. NCL must have a contract with every container company on earth.
At some point in the future, someone will make a fortune on e-bay
unloading the entire collection!
There is no more personal part of any
cruise than the quality of the food. This is one area where 5 people
can have 5 different opinions and everyone is right. That being said,
I found the food on the ship to be wildly, and maddeningly, uneven. To
my taste, the "free" dining rooms (Versailles, Aqua and
Market Café Buffet) were poor, both in menu selections and quality of
ingredients. Appetizers, soups and salads were the best bets, entrees
were at best, fair, and better not to mention desserts. The
"pay" dining rooms ranged from very good (Endless Summer, no
charge but reservations required), to excellent (Soho, $12.p.p. with
ala carte items as well, and Ginza, $10 p.p. ) to awesome (Le Bistro,
$12.50 p.p. also with ala carte items as well). It seemed that the
more you paid, the better the food. Make of that what you will. I
speak here only of dinner, the specialty rooms are not open for
breakfast or lunch. We did not try Blue Lagoon-the 24 hour
"diner" or Trattoria, the Italian restaurant. Las Ramblas,
the Spanish tapas bar, is a magical place for pre-dinner drinks and
wonderful hors d'ouvres (free). This bar makes one terrific pitcher of
sangria, and the happy hour prices ( usually 6-8 p.m.) can't be beat.
It is very easy to make a light dinner out of the various food
offerings here, which change nightly.
The brochure seems to tell you that
you have the option of making reservations or just showing up at all
dining venues. Wrong. When the ship is full, the specialty places are
booked solid one day in advance, unless you are willing to eat at 5:00
or after 9:00. Also, it is very difficult to dine with parties of 6 or
more, each restaurant having only two or three tables which can
accommodate that many. There is a table set up in the main atrium each
day beginning at 9:00 a.m. for reservations. The line frequently
wrapped itself around the atrium by 9:15, so if there is something you
really want, get there early and reserve. This is one of my biggest
problems with this freestyle concept. In theory you are supposed to
have greater freedom, in practice, it requires you to decide on Monday
morning where and when you want to eat on Tuesday night! Should you
decide not to decide, you are consigned to the regular dining rooms
with (IMO) seriously inferior food. Where is the freedom here? The
brochure also states that Aqua serves a "lighter more
contemporary menu" than the Versailles. Wrong. Because of
overcrowding in Versailles, both rooms now use the very same menu. On
the positive side, on Captains Night, lobster tails are available in
all the restaurants, whether on their regular menu or not, and there
is no Baked Alaska parade.
On our sailing, few took advantage of the one formal night in
Versailles, and the captain simply stands in the atrium to casually
meet passengers, rather than in the showroom with a formal
introduction of officers.
When the ship first entered service, there was a major problem of
everyone showing up to eat at the same time with resulting massive
delays. To solve this, they increased the evening entertainment
choices and spread them out at unusual times to stagger the crowds in
the dining rooms. Great in theory, lousy in practice. As an example,
lets pretend that on Monday morning you have already made your Tuesday
dinner reservation for, say, 8:00 p.m. On Monday evening you return to
your cabin and read Tuesday's program only to find out that the main
show is performing at 7:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. Rather than giving you
more choice, freestyle has actually given you fewer. You can have
dinner OR see the show, not both, because by this time, you cannot
change your dinner reservation; truly maddening.
I mentioned earlier about design
flaws with the ship. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the pool
deck. The main pool is far too small for the number of passengers, and
open space is further reduced by the presence of a massive water
slide, a natural magnet for small children even though they have their
own at the aft end of the ship. Shaded poolside seating is very
limited, and really used more as a dining area for the outdoor buffet
and the daily barbecue. The terraced sun decks are completely exposed
and considering that this itinerary takes you to within 210 miles of
the equator, this is really silly and dangerous unless you have
sunscreen spf 300 with you. There is a full open promenade which
encircles the ship on deck 7, with very few lounge chairs here.
Please accept my apologies if this
has been too negative so far, because there really are some wonderful
aspects to this cruise and ship.
First among the onboard positives is
the Polynesian program. One of the major complaints upon entering
service was the almost total lack of cultural activities for this
itinerary. This has been completely changed. There is a "Hawaiian
Ambassador" onboard, a gracious, beautiful woman passionately
devoted to her heritage, and before you leave, you will be too. Her
arts and crafts program each day draws literally hundreds of people.
She is in charge of a troupe of Polynesian dancers onboard who perform
two shows that are simply superb. They also run a program of Hula
lessons for those interested. Even if you don't take the lessons, do
not miss the "graduation ceremony" for those who did. Bring
your camera, a very open mind, and sit close. I'll leave the rest up
The greatest positive however, is the
itinerary. Because of the required jaunt to Fanning Island, much has
been debated about the lack of time in Hawaii itself. It is true that
the American Hawaii and United States Lines itineraries were far
superior and gave you much more time on the islands, but since they
are no longer an option, and since many don't have the time or money
for the longer HAL, RCCL or Celebrity cruises from the West Coast,
this is really the best you can do. After all, any time in Hawaii is
better than no time at all.
NCL has always excelled in its
shore/sports programs and here they really outdo themselves. Because
of the limited time in port, their shore excursions are superb and
comprehensive. I found them to be very fairly priced and expertly run.
They really make the most of your limited time. It is true that you
have time to sightsee OR shop but not both. You will definitely not
feel that you have been immersed in Hawaii, but rather you get a
little taste of what to return to later. NCL's tweaking of the
itinerary a while back put them in a catch-22 situation. By moving to
Hilo and Kahului instead of Kona and Lahina they gained a dock with no
tendering headaches, but those really are commercial ports located a
great distance away from anything interesting. They are not places
where you can walk off the ship and be in the middle of it all. You
really need to take an excursion to see what you came for. The port on
Kauai suffers the same problem, although here at least there is a
beautiful resort hotel and public beach within walking distance to the
Their pre-cruise package in Honolulu
was wonderful, the Radisson Prince Kuhio Hotel was perfectly located
and convenient to everything. Transfers and baggage handling was
excellent. I imagine the post-cruise option would be just as good.
Beware however of the "orientation breakfast" they will
advertise. Having been warned by others we ignored this, but it is no
more than a pre-dawn wake up to be taken to a convention center for
cold coffee and stale rolls, where tour companies will try to sell you
various Oahu tours. This is not an NCL sponsored event, but run by the
shoreside host company.
Thanks for staying with me for all
this. Again, I'm sorry I don't have better things to say about
freestyle cruising; I guess I'm a traditionalist at heart. Hawaii, and
Fanning Island is beautiful and I'm thrilled I had the opportunity to
go back to some of my favorite places. I will certainly return again,
and probably on a ship, but sadly, not on NCL again until they make
some major changes.