January 2014 - Norwegian Star to Panama Canal, Central America
Norwegian Star Miami to Los Angeles
14 night Panama Canal Transit & Mexican Riviera Cruise
January 19 to February 2, 2014
Itinerary: Maimi-Cartagena-Panama-Puntarenas-Hualtulco-Puerto Chiapas-Puerto Vallarta-Cabo San Lucas-Los Angeles
Flew into Ft. Lauderdale - made reservations on SAS shuttle to Miami ($15 search SAS Transport) - at NCL terminal handed a boarding group number and a letter from the Norwegian Star captain informing all that there had been numerous cases of norovirus aboard on the previous cruise and NCL would make full refund to any who decided to cancel - I know several couples (all locals) cancelled so it was nonsense to see a "full cruise - no upgrades available" sign at Star's main desk.
A little about me: I have taken numerous cruises and am not loyal to any particular cruise line. I am not a spokesperson for nor blindly fanatic about any cruise line. I usually cruise with my wife, but can report the advantages and disadvantages of family or group cruising. We book cruises that take us to places we desire to visit and also represent value. We prefer an interior, mid to upper deck stateroom. I trust you will find candid, unbiased, and useful information in my report.
Embarkation: worst ever experienced. Reason: "Serious" Norovirus outbreak on previous cruise. Miami health inspection and implementation of a prescribed sanitation plan would consume the attention of many of the crew throughout this cruise. Disinfecting the Norwegian Star delayed all boarding until after 2pm. Scuttlebutt had it that if there was another serious outbreak of norovirus on our cruise it could result in Star being quarantined in Los Angeles. Delayed boarding meant it became SRO in all terminals for everyone (but VIP's) regardless of stateroom or Latitude status. Inexplicable why all boarding Star were bottlenecked into walking over a narrow, single file bridge and herded to one of two ship card check-in podiums. We finalized our shore excursion itinerary, booked our specialty restaurant, and decided against purchasing the beverage package. Once aboard I privately questioned my evaluation of the Captain's letter because a strong disinfectant with bleach odor wafted down corridors. But I gained some reassurance seeing crewmembers feverishly sanitizing every touchable surface. Crewmembers in the Market Cafe (main buffet) wore latex gloves, issued plates and cutlery, manned drink stations, and handled salt & pepper shakers. No self-service permitted. No dawg entered any restaurant without sticking out their paws for a saturating spray of "washy-washy" disinfectant. This continued uninterrupted throughout the cruise that some joked their hands were clean enough to perform a surgery. Some compromise had to be made to devote so much crew time and effort to a mandated sanitation plan, and understandably it would have to come at the comfort and convenience of the Star's guests. No ice in stateroom. This would be a long two week, make-the-best-of-the-situation cruise.
The Ship: Disappointingly, NCL Star appears overdue for dry docking, now delayed to 2015. Most everything showed signs of wear and tear, especially furniture. Sharp-eyed hounds could detect peeling paint, rusting spots and wobbly handrails ... and a dent astern from several years ago in Bermuda. Hope you're not a dawg who believes the quality of the Captain can be determined by the condition of the ship.
There's a mandated "muster" lifeboat drill just prior to sailing. Dawgs report to their designated lifeboat listed on their ship card and staff checks your name/stateroom on their roster. Muts who skip have a private muster party later. Lifevests aren't requested. I figure some of those liferaft canisters nearby are intended for us because not all of us are going to fit into that little lifeboat.
A scenic sunset sailaway from Miami was followed by two sea days sailing just east of Cuba and across "hurricane alley". Seas became moderate and caused Star's long but narrow "PanMax" hull to jerk and pitch just enough to warrant patches/motion sickness remedies from those lacking sea legs. It became windy enough to secure some deck doors and limit outside deck activities. Though Star has many talented staff members aboard, there was not an abundance of planned activities. It seemed intentional to draw unwary hounds into revenue generating bingo, shops, bars, art auctions and, of course, the casino.
Dawgs on this cruise were decidedly seniors. Any 60 or less were pups in this wheelchair/walker pack. NCL appeals to independent dawgs who believe otherwise, but this cruise demonstrated that there are advantages to scheduled early and late dinner seating. Freestyle cruising didn't work with this early-bird special manifest because most wanted to be at the same place at the same time creating long lines and wait lists so long some were issued an electronic pager. The situation was worsened by the fact that the ongoing sanitation plan left the main dining staff undermanned and overwhelmed. Waits between appetizer and entree in the main dining Versailles and Aqua of almost an hour became common and anticipated. Salty dawgs understood and took it in stride preferring long waits to getting norovirus. Even so the phrase "Wait Like A Norwegian", a pun on NCL's advertising, could be heard now and then. I found myself sympathetic to those who commented that the situation might have been improved if Star's Captain or Hotel Director were seen in main dining now and then. It seemed most senior officers were going out of their way to stay away. Whatever their reasons and regardless of their legitimacy, their inability or unwillingness to correct issues of concern to the majority of their guests did nothing to build confidence or loyalty in NCL. Our Latitudes socials only confirmed the cautious aloofness senior officers exhibited throughout this cruise. Officers this fearful of catching something contagious from us did little to assure us any would risk their necks to save us during an emergency.
Menu: Intentional or not, it wasn't easy to determine from the posted menu where to dine because there is an unspecified "Chef's Specialty" a.k.a. "Mystery Meal". An example: one night the Market Cafe buffet served prime rib and main dining did not ... the "Mystery Meal" was a burrito! And it seemed the "Chef's Specialty" served the skimpiest portions. One could order seconds, but the wait discouraged doing so. Most of the time Versailles and Aqua published the same menu. Aqua dinnertime is casual dress (shorts and flip flops) and Versailles is not. I discovered I was less likely to be seated at my requested table in Versailles if I dressed too casually, even if I were an early arrival. There are optional "dress up" (formal) nights and some pampered pooches flaunted their stuff. There's also a "white night" so consider packing some white clothes.
Pedigree dawgs either complained about their food offerings and quality or fled to premium charge restaurants, which is what NCL hopes many will do. This dawg was quite satisfied with the menu and quality which served up tilapia, salmon, rack of lamb, prime rib, duck, red snapper, swordfish, shrimp, scallops, flounder and surf-n-turf lobster tail & steak. I admit it: I am not among those who make a habit of eating this well in a normal two week period. We did, however, dine once at Teppanyaki: the Japanese hibachi and recommend it.
We usually ate breakfast and lunch in Versailles as they permit casual dress then. Even late into the cruise we found guests unaware that Versailles, Aqua, and Blue Lagoon were complimentary (well, it's prepaid as part of the cruise) restaurants like the crowded (but faster) Market Cafe buffet. NCL has a mandated gratuity of $12 per day/per guest. Since mediocre performance is compensated the same as exemplary, inconsistent table service and stateroom stewardship is a consequence. A guest could submit a blue comment card if they could obtain one. But on this particular cruise most dawgs heard and knew the rationale creating service problems.
Music: I'm baffled why some of Star's musicians and DJ's are convinced mature seniors might want to listen to hip hop, rap, or reggae broadcasted so loudly hearing aids squealed and they fled the venue searching for something better. One would think the Hotel Director or Cruise Director would advise playing music appropriate to the audience. Kudos to those talented musicians who performed for the benefit and pleasure of the guests. I suspect when NCL studies the bar receipts, they'll agree.
Shows: Most were hits and a few were misses. The shows on your cruise may not be the same as this cruise. The biggest hit, "Elements", packed up and moved to NCL Dawn after this cruise. I found the headliners all quite entertaining. Judging by the audience attendance and response, I believe the weakest shows were presented by the Star's singers and dancers. That might be because they're still performing shows I saw two years ago. The exception might be "Styles", but it is not suitable for chidren and is slated to be retired. The singers performed an outstanding cabaret- style show in the lounge and dancers gave basic ballroom dance lessons inconveniently scheduled during dinnertime. It seems to me performing NCL employees are underutilized. Though NCL employs a keyboard musician, the grand piano languished unperformed in the Versailles every night of this cruise. Maybe the pianist only plays when the Captain or Hotel Director dine with us in steerage class.
Cartagena is primarily a refueling stop for Star and the fumes make a good reason to go ashore. Shore excursions are cash cows for the cruise line, but independent sightseeing comes with risks warranting greater than usual caution here.
The Star had to travel through rough seas between Cartagena and the Panama Canal. The Captain announced Star had to maintain speed to arrive at the Canal at the appointed time so the trip would not be smooth. He unapologetically ended his announcement with, "It is what it is." Salty dawgs knew it meant to carefully store away belongings in their stateroom left on shelves or countertops. We awoke at night to a scene out of a movie: the bed seemed determined to roll us out onto the floor and closet doors and cabinet drawers opened and shut by themselves. Imagine the adventure awaiting any attempt to sit on the toilet!
The highlight of the cruise, and our reason for booking, is the Panama Canal transit. At this time of year it lasts from sunrise to near sunset. The bow on Deck 8 is opened early to permit optimal viewing (no seating) of the lock operations enhanced by live explanatory/historical narration. Dawgs hunt their own best way to view the transit, but we preferred relaxing in a lounger on the shady port side of Deck 7. It was sunny and very warm outside and freighters pass closely portside to portside in the Canal. We learned from the narration that NCL paid over a half million dollars for the Star to transit the Panama Canal!
Our dash from Miami through the Canal now over, Star cut speed in the tranquil blue Pacific and began a leisurely sail along the protected coast. I imagine Acapulco and Mazatlan could be added ports replacing sea days on this itinerary. I'm thinking their port fees might add too much to the individual fares and/or NCL wants patrons to cruise their other ships that stop there. Every announcement pertaining to going ashore was followed by a warning not to eat or drink anything away from the ship unless it was factory sealed, canned, or bottled. This is experienced traveler precaution, but Star insisted the blame for the norovirus outbreak on the previous cruise was due to unsanitary conditions ashore, and seemingly targeted independent guests who had not booked an NCL shore excursion. Dawgs familiar with statistics know most norovirus outbreaks on a ship are attributed to unsanitary conditions aboard, chiefly suspect being careless handling of uncooked, "fresh" food.
There are a variety of shore excursions from Puntarenas, Costa Rica. We took the Train, Bus & Boat Tour and returned feeling it represented a fair value. From the table talk, those on the Zip Line had a great experience.
Instead of Acapulco or Mazatlan, we dock in Puerto Chiapas, Mexico, which appears to be a destination NCL is in the process of developing (think Carnival/RCCL's Costa Maya). If so, expect shopping and sipping venues that are revenue producing onshore facilities of the cruise line. Right now there are two pyramid structures: one housing shopping, the other a restaurant/bar with a pool out front. It's high rent for shop owners, so that factors into any bargaining, but don't pay the marked price or accept the first offer.
Hualtulco, Mexico, is a picturesque port with beach access just off the dock so wear a bathing suit under clothes and bring towel & sunscreen. Remember to take your ship card and Passport, too. There are lots of beach toys for rent or hire here. We abandoned the hot (95 degrees) beach before noon ... an icy, snowy day back home. Pass the gate into a gated tourist zone and there are people eager to sell you trips, trinkets, tonics and tees. Most is price negotiable. If you pay more than 40% of the first price, you paid to much, amigo. Downtown is a taxi drive away and, from table talk, not tourist friendly. For some unexplained reason, there was heavy security present here: police, armed Mexican soldiers, even the US Coast Guard. If there was a threat, NCL kept us in the dark about it.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, is a jewel on the Mexican Riviera. Star parked across the street from a Wallymart. Though a short walk, taxi drivers hawked $5 fares to Wallymart. Here we took our $1.25 Shore Excursion. There's a money exchange on the Star and in Wallymart. We caught a city bus ($7.50 Pesos or 62 cents US) to "Centro" or center of Old Town. From there we headed to the ocean and strolled down the entire sculpture-lined ocean walk or El Malecon. We saw several large pods of humpback whales in the bay, went into several interesting shops, and took in some free street shows. We continued onto the beach. After some beach rest and more whale watching we entered the city and caught the city bus back to Wallymart.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, is a tendering (ride small boat from ship to dock) port, so you need to get a free tender ticket to go ashore. The tender docks at one end of a large, gated yacht harbor lined with shops and locals hawking wares. About midway around is Puerto Paradiso, an upscale shopping center (there's a Johnny Rockets inside). Continue on around and you'll arrive at the beach. Pass through the main gate and you'll be downtown where some bargains may be negotiated. Table talk revealed humpbacks were sparse here today. A big attraction here (among the top 5 in Mexico) is El Arco (a natural stone sea arch). Just be aware the Star will pass by the Sea Arch (starboard side) and the spectacular coastline upon departure.
I stopped by the Desk and obtained an accounting statement while we were in Cabo San Lucas to avoid the long lines that would form there the next day. I had time to carefully inspect it and found that our statement was thankfully but disgustingly accurate. This is the moment inattentive dawgs discover they spent more aboard than on their cruise ticket. Our final statement arrived at our door 4 a.m. the last day and it was very quick and easy to verify.
Los Angeles, California, ends this cruise. We booked the Beachfronts shore excursion that ends at the airport before 2 p.m., so we had an early departure. If you have a late flight, compare the shore excursion with taxi fares from the port to LAX. We packed light and had only carry-ons (yes, for a 14 night cruise) allowing us express departure by-passing baggage claims and with little to declare, breezing through customs. In contrast to our embarkation, this rates among our easiest departures. Overpacked dawgs and those with much to declare to Customs were less satisfied with their disembarkation experience. Avoid surprises: Savvy dawgs search the internet to learn their US Customs limits.
Things to consider packing: sunscreen, solid insect repellent, sunglasses, hat, an insulated sealable drink container, binoculars, laundry soap, bar soap, specialty shampoo, power strip extension cord, good walking map of ports, favorite snacks, hard candy, band aids, and over the counter remedies you often need.
Since most young people are attending school this time of year, and most working adults used their vacation time over the holidays, one should expect a lot of seniors aboard. It seemed to me there were more than a few seniors lacking patience and civility this 14 night cruise required. The crew preoccupied with sanitizing couldn't promptly satisfy all guest demands, but enforcement of rules was virtually nonexistent. I don't want this to sound like a nursing home version of "Animal House", but selfish mongrels took advantage and saved loungers, blocked off restaurant tables and chairs, saved entire rows of theater seats, saved hot tubs, crashed lines, and rammed their motorized chair into a nearly full elevator. Instead of going to the track, joggers/speed walkers shoved aside leisure walkers, ignored section closed for maintenance barriers, and trotted through shuffleboard tournaments on Promenade Deck 7. Security was little concerned as they are employed to protect NCL property and limit liability.
Salty dawgs take the advertised perfect vacation cruise with a good dash of salt. Dawgs who board with realistic expectations that not everything will go their way, can adhere to their budget, and be flexible in their schedule will find this escape from winter very pleasant. Dawgs whose bucket list includes a full transit of the Panama Canal and some stops along the Mexican Reviera should be happiest. That's why I booked, and that's why I enjoyed this cruise. Ours should not be considered a "typical" cruise and, hopefully, Norwegian Star will shine brightly and you should anticipate a better cruise in every way.
Bon Voyage, Sea Dawg