After some research (and quite a bit of indecisiveness on my part. I hate making decisions) my hubby and I decided to spend this year's vacation on a Norwegian Cruise. Neither of us have cruised before; I was raised backpacking and tent camping and he was raised beach camping, so we didn't know what to expect but figured it was an experience we should add to our growing list of adventures together. I chose the Mexican Riviera cruise on the Norwegian Star for both price and convenience. The Star left out of the San Pedro port instead of Long Beach, which saved us about 45 minutes in ugly freeway driving.
We left for our cruise on Saturday, approximately 12 hours after the fires broke out in Sylmar, California. Many of the freeways were closed, but we managed to make it to the port in San Pedro on time. We opted to check our baggage; not wanting to drag it onboard ourselves. Check in was quick and painless. After some confusion with our keycards (they didn't work and we had to get new ones) we were placing our luggage in our balcony stateroom and heading up to the pool deck for cast off.
I took this picture of the sunset surrounded by the wildfire smoke. Layers of ash continued to fall on us until we were a few miles out to sea. I don't know how anyone enjoyed the buffet they had set up on deck. Maybe they didn't notice the ash topping. Back in our room we had champagne and strawberries waiting. This was part of a very reasonably priced "Romance Package" I ordered and was the perfect way to start the trip. I highly recommend it. Dinner was in "Aqua", one of the ships main dining rooms, and it squashed any worries I might have had about 'cruise food'. The servers were professional and friendly. The steak and salmon was amazing. With NCL's "Freestyle Cruising" we didn't have to sit with strangers (unless we wanted to) and could show up in jeans and a tshirt. Stress free and perfect for us more relaxed travelers. After all the excitement I crashed pretty early, in a very comfortable bed.
Sunday was our first "At Sea" day in the southern route to Los Cabos. We woke early, but not early enough to catch a sunrise from the top deck. The port side got the sunrises on the way down. We were on starboard side. I had pre-ordered room service breakfast the night before, and thus discovered that room service was a waste of time. The menu is limited and boring and stale. We wandered up to deck 12 and found some real food in the buffet; the "Market Cafe". Just like Aqua it had awesome service and food. Lots of healthy choices in addition to not so healthy splurges. My husband's plate of 2 muffins, cinnamon rolls, and french toast was enought to make my heart stop, but heck. We're on vacation.
I decided to take advantage of the sun and get some color. We found a nice spot in the "Quiet Section" at the forward end of the ship to read and sip some rum & cokes my hubby had ordered without thinking. I had snuck on my own bottles of liquor and arranged for him to have the Adult Soda Program which gave him unlimited sodas for the trip. Otherwise we would have paid for each and every soda and mixed drink, which are overpriced and have a 15% gratuity attached. As it was we ended up paying $13/each for our poolside cocktails.
After a quick shower (showers are stalls about the same size as those in the apartments of my single life) we did a stroll around our ship and ended up in the Red Lion Pub. It being Sunday we sat down for a beer and some football. The Red Lion easily became one of my favorite bars. It really captured the classic relaxed pub atmosphere. It was also the only place you could get popcorn on the ship.
We decided to have dinner at one of the ship's specialty restaurants, for which there are additional cover charges. Tonite it was Teppanyaki, a teppan style steakhouse where we joined 4 other couples around a grill and the cooks prepared our meal in front of us. I've been to plenty of teppan houses and while the food was pretty standard, the show the cooks put on simply wasn't interesting. Disappointing even, and not worth the $50 we spent to walk in there. But... we had to try it to find that out. Dessert was at the Market Cafe; BAD cake, good ice cream.
After a $14 glass of cheap champagne in Gatsby's Lounge where we listened to a very very sad singer turn just about any happy tune into a wrist slicing tunnel of doom, we saw our first show in the Stardust Theater. It was An Evening with Andrew Lloyd Webber and we were pleasantly suprised at just how much we enjoyed it. Wonderful talent and renditions of the classics. Back in our stateroom we had a little friend waiting. :-)
We pulled into Cabo San Lucas around 11am. My husband and I had experienced Cabo 3 years ago (it was our first vacation together as a couple) and I hadn't enjoyed much about the area then. So for our first shore excursion I booked us a trip to a little village away from all the touristy alcohol laden craziness of downtown Cabo.
After breakfast at the Market Cafe (I could see a habit forming here), we met with our shore excursion group and tendered on shore. Tip: Sit at the front of these little boats if possible. It cuts down on the diesel fumes.
As it was, four cruise ships were all tendering at the exact same time. This made the pier slightly chaotic. We had to pay close attention to exactly which tour guide holding a puny sign we were supposed to be following to make sure we ended up on the correct bus. Our air conditioned Greyhound took us for an hour trip up the coast, all which was narrated by our very friendly and informative guide. She gave us info not only about the history of the area, but also about Cabo's current economic and political status.
We arrived in the little village of Todos Santos, home of the original Hotel California the Eagles based their song on. Our tour included a hot plate lunch of traditional Mexcian flavor, but did NOT include the one alcholic beverage as advertised. This was fine. In the heat we really should stick to water anyways. We had time to browse the surrounding shops and galleries, most of which contained various knock-off items made in China.
Other highlights include Our Lady Pilar de la Paz Church, and the gorgeous architecture from the turn of the century. On our ride back our guide stopped the bus at a roadside candy stand and bought some of the local sweets for us to try. I'm guessing many are an acquired taste. :) We made it back to the pier just in time to make the last tender. Of course, since we booked a shore excursion with an NCL approved company the boat would have waited for us if we were late. If you book an excursion outside of NCL they have the option to leave you behind.
We had our dinner in the Market Cafe. I had the most wonderful Indian dishes! Norwegian does it's best to cater to the many ethnicities of it's guests. Tonight was the night of their "White Hot Party" in the Spinnaker Lounge. I opted to wear white, my husband did not. We watched the Battle of the Sexes game show and some karaoke. Then the lounge became a nightclub... which really was entertaining. The cruise director and many from the entertainment staff joined in. We were shocked to watch members of the dance staff do lines of coke while seated in front of us. I guess NCL doesn't drug test.
Tip I learned that night: establish drink prices verbally BEFORE they give them to you. The prices got higher as the night went on in the hopes that we were too drunk to notice. I noticed, and got more free alcohol as a result.
I'm not a fan of Cabo, but they truly have some lovely sunsets.
Since we were up so late at the White Hot Party we slept in on Tuesday. When we woke our ship was already docked in Mazatlan. I hadn't booked any excursions for today so we took our time getting breakfast and walking off the ship. A tram met us at the ship and carried us across the pier, for safety reasons I'm sure. Again, chaos. Just two cruise ships were docked today, but we must have had 200 tour offers screaming at us. A very polite guide pointed us towards the taxis, and we found one to take us into Old Town Mazatlan, for $8. We talked him down to $6, plus a tip. On our way out of the cruise docks our taxi was side swiped by a bus. After some cursing in Spanish both drivers merely threw up their arms jumped back in their vehicles and we continued on our way. Our driver dumped us by the Mercado and mumbled something about how to find the cathedral. There was lots of dirt and chaos, but it never felt unsafe.
We found the Catedral Basílica de la Purísima Concepció and stepped inside to admire. The arches and architecture were beautiful. Chris liked the stain glass and paintings. I loved the carvings and how cool and refreshing the air was, even without A/C. Across the street was a park with seats in the shade and we sat a while to take in the surroundings. It being a Tuesday afternoon lots of kids seemed to have just gotten out of school, mostly in Catholic uniforms. I wanted to shop in the Mercado, so we VERY carefully made our way through the streets to the indoor shopping area. The organized chaos in the food sections prevented me from purchasing a quick snack, but we did get a great deal on a handpainted porcelain sink. (We recently bought a house and I apparently want an old Mexican flare in the bathroom) This purchase was pretty heavy and we hailed a cab back to the docks. This time for $5. No accidents in this taxi.
After lunch I needed a nap. Canapes were delivered to our room around 5pm, part of that Romance Package I purchased. Still not sure what was in those canapes. They were AWFUL. I left the full plate in the hall for pickup and went up to top deck, curious as to how our giant ship would turn around in the harbor.
After another wonderful dinner in Aqua dining hall we sat in the Java Cafe to watch the Melodic Quartet sing American country classics. All acoustic, and all of Asian descent, they became our favorite live band on the ship.
Wednesday was our Puerto Vallarta day, and we woke up WAY too early. Tip: Check cell phone time versus cruise ship time. They may not match and your alarm will get you up at 5 instead of 6. ugh. Our planned shore excursion with the company Vallarta Adventures set sail aboard a catamaran around 9am. What was advertised as a "short boat ride" turned out to be an hour long haul back up the coast to the fishing village of Yelapa. There was a stop for snorkeling and kayaking off the boat, followed by lunch, followed by the final trip to the village. Again, what was advertised as a "short walk to the waterfall" turned out to be an hour and 45 minute trek through the jungle. Chris is recovering from knee replacement, so we weren't able to join this hiking group. A tiny and terrifying boat shot us out to the beach instead, where agressive and rude restaurant staff fought over which chairs and whose beer we would enjoy. The picture with the iguana was taken here. We again had to haggle a price for taking a picture with our own camera. Once seated I was finally able to enjoy our surroundings. Puerto is so green and lush. You can't even see the land through the canopy of trees. Light cloud cover kept it from being unbearably hot. The boat crew was entertaining and hospitable. I refused to join in their congo line or the Macarena, but still had a great time on their boat.
Back on the ship I was exhausted, and napped until our dinner in the Endless Summer, one of their specialty restaurants. Again, not worth the $20 extra we spent, but at least a margarita was included. Random thing I learned: you can't get decent Mexican food on a Mexican Riviera cruise. For good Mexican fare, get off the ship.
After dinner we listened to our favorite band in the Java Cafe again, viewed some art by Salvador Dali in the gallery before seeing the improv comedy of Second City in the Stardust Theater. Very funny people.
My husband and I plan to return to Puerto Vallarta on another trip. The lush landscape and fun people we met make me want to spend a significantly greater amount of time there.
The last 2 days of the cruise were at sea days, with no scheduled stops. Just us and the big blue ocean. I learned that I wasn't fond of every single passenger being on the ship at the same time. It became more of a rush to do things since there was more competition for space and time; rush to get the good foods in the buffet before they ran out, rush to get a chair on deck for tanning, rush to get a seat in the theater at night. I know now for our next cruise that I need to book trips with only one or zero at sea days. This is just a personal preference.
We had sent some of my husband's shirts into the laundry service, and discovered that laundry service should be reserved for whites only as they use a ton of bleach. His dark blue shirts became a lovely shade of pale. We had a couple more delicious breakfasts at Market Cafe and caught the last of the heat and sun before it turned chilly closer to Los Angeles. Around 3pm we liked to grab some ice cream as a snack. My husband's favorite part of the day. (Ice cream is located IN the gym, which I found amusing)
The last specialty restaurants we sampled were the italian, La Trattoria, the New York wannabe Soho, and the french, Le Bistro. I will give rave reviews only for Le Bistro. This dinner was part of our Romance Package and was the best meal we had the whole week. Amazing cuisine. And probably the best service we got from any restaurant. The other two were worth sampling, but weren't anything to write home about. The Soho's attempt at a New York brunch was a joke, but the jazz band playing was quite good.
After a full week onboard I feel like we got to do and see and eat just about everything we wanted to. Some we loved, others we know to avoid in the future. Even with my own secret stash of alcohol we ended up paying a considerable amount of money towards drinks and extras. There are plenty of opportunities for free and reduced liquor on the ship, from shopping for diamonds with champagne, to art auctions with champagne, to 2 for one cocktails during Bingo. Even if you're not interested in purchasing art or participating in Bingo, take advantage of the free booze. It saves you big bucks.
The best food on the ship is in the main dining halls and the buffet. Next time we sail (Norwegian or otherwise) I will probably avoid the specialty restaurants altogether and save myself the cover charges. Get the soda program!!! At $6.25 a day it's a life saver for soda drinkers, and for us rum and coke lovers.
We returned to Los Angeles/San Pedro early Saturday morning. We opted to do the Express Walk Off and carry our own bags off the ship. This made us among the first group to disembark and we didn't have to deal with baggage claim or the crowds. I found it odd that I didn't have to show my passport once to get back in my country of origin. Quite frankly it made me nervous how easy it was to stroll onto American soil without once stating who I was or that I had the right to be here. Scary. But we had a wonderful time on our first cruise, met some lovely people from all over the globe, ate some amazing dishes and were never bored or stressed. I'm currently nagging both sets of parents to look into a cruise. I can't wait for our next.