Monday, November 2, 2009

Cruise Review: Norwegian Star

2.5 Stars for the Star
By: Diane Hansen

In 1999, Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) built the Norwegian Sky and pioneered a cruise concept called "Freestyle Cruising." Going freestyle means no assigned meal times and the freedom for passengers to structure their cruise any way they want. However, the hidden costs, both monetary and non-monetary, are many and may hamper the traveling experience if they aren't expected.

Cruise ships are known for their low cost of entry, like a great rate on a stateroom, with ancillary costs once you are on board. However, the Norwegian Star tends to sacrifice quality and availability of standard inclusive amenities for the potential of increased revenue. This feeling becomes more and more pervasive throughout the guest experience.

The Norwegian Star has one buffet, a casual comfort food restaurant and two dine-in restaurants that are included with the stateroom price. The quality of the food varies drastically, from school cafeteria heat-and-serve on the buffets to three-star fare in the restaurants. Out of the inclusive restaurants, the service was best at Aqua, with highly-attentive, friendly staff and expedient service. Yet the food available in all of the inclusive dining options seemed to leave guests wanting and wondering what the pay restaurants had to offer. One of these restaurants, La Tratatoria, brazenly occupies half of the buffet space in the evenings, which limits the dinner seating options for the buffet.

Most of the paid restaurants on the ship were impeccable in terms of style, service and taste. Possibly the best food on the ship could be found at Le Bistro, a charming French restaurant and Cagney's, a classic steakhouse. Soho, a contemporary cuisine restaurant, also received rave reviews from guests. The influences throughout the ship's cuisine are decidedly French, with emphasis on rich sauces and decadent desserts. Ginza, a Japanese restaurant with a Teppanyaki grill, has a limited selection of sushi plus a respectable selection of Japanese and Chinese creations. The Teppanyaki portion is $10 more than the standard menu. Alcohol is not included on the ship, which is standard. Pepsi products were available for either a per drink charge or by purchasing a soft drink package. Even though this felt a bit nickel and dime-like, most cruise operations charge for soft drinks.

Perhaps the most confusing of pay-to-play perks on the Norwegian Star was the VIP spa, lap pool, hydrotherapy pool, sauna and changing room at the Barong Spa. On paper, this concept looks acceptable. It occupies prime space aft with a sweeping ocean view, therefore it’s the perfect place for a VIP experience. However, the VIP spa eliminates one amenity that is inclusive on most ships, use of the sauna and steam room. The hot tub and lap pool inside is also off limits to non-VIP guests, meaning that there are only five of the six hot tubs on the ship available for use without paying more. The advertised six hot tubs and two pools should be revised for better communication of this fact. Additionally, guests have access to the gym but must shower and change in their staterooms, a real inconvenience if the stateroom happens to be on the opposite end of the ship. VIP areas are wonderful and provide a welcome respite. Making something as standard as a sauna and steam room for VIPs only without providing an inclusive option is simply unacceptable.

Norwegian seems to be looking for revenue at every turn. From diminishing inclusive space and activities to up selling everything that isn't nailed down, the NCL cruising experience has diminished over the past two years.

Shuffles, the card and game room on the Star, has been reduced by half the size. They have opted instead to use the adjacent room as a secondary gift shop. Shuffles is well-used by the guests and the tables are often filled to capacity. Conversely, highlighting the misuse of space further, the gift shop lacked customers. In every nook and cranny, servers were asking passengers if they would like one of the three drinks of the day to the point where it felt like telling a dancer, "no honey, I wouldn't not like a lap dance, thank you." In a stretch of 20 minutes, on the pool deck, some guests were approached at least four times by servers soliciting drink orders.

NCL "U" is another revenue creation which includes educational lectures on international beers, food pairings and wine appreciation. These activities were listing on the activity schedule at $15 each. Attending without consuming food or alcohol, or paying for it, was not an option. The activities were mostly geared around gaining revenue; the White Hot Party had a $15 t-shirt you could buy if you felt out of place by not wearing white (which was recommended). There was also a special drink. Shopping talks, art seminars, gaming classes, bingo... everything on the activity schedule seemed to have a revenue-based purpose. Fortunately, the movie theater was still included without the requirement to take a paid informative class on how to better appreciate film.

With all of this said, this was not a bad cruise. NCL maintains some of the best staff around, all very friendly and eager to help if you need anything. The cabins have an amazing amount of storage and the beds are incredibly comfortable. At times, if it weren't for the gentle rocking of the boat, one could easily forget that they are on a cruise ship. NCL operates the youngest fleet of ships in the world.  So the accomodations and appointments are modern and visually exciting, making for great on-board vacation photos. 

The entertainment aboard the Norwegian Star is Las Vegas quality and features a variety of musical acts, the top Chicago comedy troupe Second City and stunningly bendy Chinese acrobats. There's even a bawdy comedian late at night. For parents, the Star offers a kids program complete with separate kids pools and play areas.  The main pool area is spacious and has twin twisted water slides that adults, as well as kids, are welcome to use.  The itinerary that the Star maintains for the Mexican Riviera is exciting. Although the time in Cabo San Lucas is a short six hours, the rest of the port days stretch to almost nine hours for Mazatlan and a very nice 11 hours in Puerto Vallarta.

Ultimately, being a passenger on the Norwegian Star takes a great deal of control with your stateroom key card, which acts as your ID and your money on the ship. If you understand this, you will have a good cruise with them. If you don't, a potentially frightening bill will await you at the end. NCL operates off of the envelope system, meaning that your service fees for housekeeping are included in your final bill as well. In terms of the other services, a simple rule of thumb will get you by. Just remember, if someone asks for your key card, it is not included.


  1. The main dining room food wasn't as good as 3 stars. Call it 2 1/2 stars at the best.

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